On online education

August 29th, 2012

Last week, Peter Lawler, a professor of government at Berry College, provided some good thoughts about online education–what it can do well, and what it lacks. Writing for his “Rightly Understood” blog at BigThink, Lawler focuses mainly on higher education, but his thoughts are equally applicable to the many secondary schools that are making increasing use of the Internet to teach students.

Lawler writes:

So there’s a lot of enthusiasm for online education. Of the many arguments I’ve seen, these make the most sense: First, online education gives people access to higher education who otherwise wouldn’t have it. It’s perfect for people with real jobs and busy schedules (and so who need to be “in class” whenever they can),  people in remote locations, and people who just can’t afford the luxury of the personal “touch.”

Second, online education promises to make professors more productive.  One instructor can reach hundreds or thousands of students. And it’s that fact—combined with the lack of unnecessary amenities and, you can hope, a very much reduced administrative infrastructure—that promises to make higher education affordable or at least no longer a ripoff.

Professors of political philosophy, such as the legendary Cliff Orwin, don’t think that they can do their jobs properly online.

But Orwin, for one, concedes a lot to the onliners. He admits that insofar that education is training it can be done online. Anyone who has tried to fix his screwed-up computer knows why. The instructional lesson or video or whatever may not be great, but neither might be the in-class lecture.  You can read the instructions or watch the video time and again, and eventually you figure out what’s going on. You may or may not be able to ask your own “help” questions, but there are typically so many questions with expert answers online that you soon find one that fits your bill. […]

When it comes even to history,  you can have links to lectures, articles, primary documents, and all that. Sure, it might be more up to the student than usual to put it all together. But all the trendy educational theories say that we should leave it to the students to make the connections anyway. I have no idea why an online package along those lines wouldn’t be regarded as far superior to a textbook. And, in fact, most textbooks now come with  links to online stuff that really tend to make the textbook itself almost superfluous. […]

The fashionable way of addressing the issue of quality—the development of easy-to-measure and so easy-to-assess “competencies”—actually works to the advantage of the onliners.  The general drift from excellence to competence makes it easy to say that online is “good enough,” and “good enough” is all we’re going for.

To get into top graduate schools or a really good job, students often really do need to develop a personal or “mentor” relationship with a professor, who can push the student’s distinctive accomplishments in more than an abstract, merely quantitative way to employers and professors. It’s hard to see how that works online. The really entrepreneurial student can sell himself (or herself) in some cases. But that’s a lot harder to do.

In general, online education demands that students be much more self-motivated than they typically are, and so an honest program would produce many more drop-outs and failures than the brick-and-mortar alternative. Your slacker kid is unlikely to flourish in online classes (for one thing, there’s a lot of other stuff online), and that’s a big reason to borrow big bucks to get him into a “supportive” academic environment. It’s not a big reason to send him to State U with the warehouse classes and exceptional nonacademic amenities and opportunities.

Having made all these concessions to the onliners, we can attend to what’s true and beautiful to Orwin’s claim that’s what’s often good enough is nowhere near what’s best:

The New York Times of July 19 contained an excellent column by the University of Virginia’s Mark Edmundson. He explained why teaching requires the physical presence of the students. Prof. Edmundson likens good teaching to jazz. It is inherently responsive and improvisational. You revise your presentation as it goes, incorporating the students’ evolving reception of it. In response to their response, as individuals and as a group, you devise new variations on your theme. You don’t address students in the abstract or as some anonymous throng scattered throughout cyberspace. You always teach these students, in this room, at this time.

So it matters to me to know who my students are, to know their faces and names, to see how they dress and what they’re reading. I need to talk to them before and after class and listen to what they’re saying among themselves. Above all, it’s crucial for me to hear their voices as they answer my questions and ask their own, to heed their inflections and mark the expressions on their faces. In my large introductory course, I devote a third of the time to discussion. That’s not just so the students can probe me, but so I can probe them.

It’s equally important to the students that I’m there. They need a real person with whom to engage. Someone to interrogate. Someone to persuade them. Someone to resist. Someone with whom they can identify or refuse to identify. Because education addresses the whole person, it requires a real person to model it. It matters to the students not just to hear what I say but to hear the voice in which I say it–the hesitations as well as the certainties. They need an example of someone who, like them, is learning as he goes along–but just happens to be further along than they are.

Live education is expensive, you say? The best things in life tend to be.

Read the whole thing here.

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