Kaplan’s ads (or fantasy island meets back to the future)

While hanging out and watching a little television the other night, I saw an ad for Kaplan University, part of their “talent” campaign. The ad depicts a professor and college classroom straight out of central casting. The professor wears a sweater vest and a bow tie, he’s bald, in his fifties, and he is African American (that throws a bit of a wrench into the stereotype). He stands at lectern on a small stage in an anciently old lecture hall, a chalk board behind him–the word “talent” is scrawled on it– and a group of college-aged students in front of him. The classic “sage on the stage” scene. He’s giving a speech about how we are wasting talent and time in an educational system “steeped in tradition and old ideas.” Our professor says it’s “time for a new tradition, that talent isn’t just in schools, it’s everywhere.”

And suddenly, we’re transported to the magic of the “online classroom:” a woman laying on the couch and watching a laptop with her cat, a young man watching the professor on an iPhone while waiting for a subway, a mom sitting at a kitchen table watching the professor with a couple kids running about, a male model propped up in bed with coffee and a laptop, a business woman watching the professor on some sort of hand-held device, and a young woman sitting on an apartment roof with her laptop, perhaps the only place where the wifi signal is strong. And I swear I am not making any of this up– watch the ad. Through this montage, the music swells and the professor tells us again and again “it is time for a different kind of university– it’s your time.”

According to this Business Wire/Yahoo snippet about the campaign, “‘The new campaign makes a statement that the U.S. traditional higher education system doesn’t always meet the needs of today’s adult learners, mainly working adults struggling to balance jobs, families and education,’ said Andrew S. Rosen, Chairman and CEO of Kaplan, Inc. ‘At Kaplan University, we are rewriting the rules of higher education by offering students the opportunity to customize their education to meet their needs, and by providing resources and support to help them succeed.'”

Well, I see the point they are trying to make. But this is so wrong in so many ways.

First there is the fantasy of the kind of instruction being provided (potentially) by these online classes, of the “great minds” teaching to the masses. Long-story short, that’s not what has historically happened. David Noble (who I largely disagree with) made this point a decade ago: correspondence courses promised this sort of experience 120 or so years ago, but ultimately, what ended up happening was the “great minds” wrote up a few lessons and unknown and frequently inexperienced part-timers actually did the teaching. That is a danger at all institutions, but I guarantee you that you will never take a class from a “distinguished professor” at Kaplan simply because about 90% of their faculty are part-timers.

Second, there is the fantasy of the kind of students and the student experience. Basically, the ad depicts two kinds of students: those who are literally laying around and those who are doing something else while “learning.” I think the not so subtle implication here is that you can take classes online while simultaneously working a real job or something, or taking an online class is as easy as laying around on the couch with your cat. The one student the ad does depict that is somewhat realistic in my experience is the woman (perhaps a single mom?) sitting at the kitchen table with her laptop while a couple kids are running around. Lots of my online students have been single women with young kids, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a male model who laid around in bed all day.

And then there is the “back to the future” aspect. Kaplan is accusing traditional institutions as being “behind the times,” so what do they do to depict online learning? Why, they show a bunch of people watching a lecture! Splendid!

I appreciate that they can only do so much in a 30 second spot, but the fact is the point of online learning/teaching is not to replicate the face to face experience. Rather, the point of online learning/teaching is to take advantage of medium that fosters a lot of interaction between students and instructors. Speaking of which: I need to stop my rant here so I can actually go and do some online teaching this morning….

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