Sunday, November 6, 2011

Against the Reign of Online Education: Responding to the Rise of the Faceless Classroom (Part 2)

* Disclaimer: Due to likely misunderstanding, please note that in the title, my opponent is "the reign of online education" rather than online education itself. That is, I take issue here with the idea that online learning is nearly as good as or even superior to embodied learning. 

Part I is here, and Part III is here.
The Social Effects of Online Learning

Everywhere the 21st century American looks, personal technological devices are on display. A family out to dinner typically contains at least one, if not all, members distracted by a handheld device with an internet connection. Teenagers “hanging out” in groups are often seen sending text messages to recipients elsewhere instead of conversing with those souls actually in front of them. College students commonly navigate between classes with iPod earbuds in place, oblivious to the existence of other students. Commuters are frequently absorbed in their laptops or personal devices, rarely making eye contact with anyone else. It seems clear, therefore, that while we are not deficient in our access to information through technology, we are increasingly alienated from other people and from the world around us.

One might ask what this milieu has to do with the analysis of online education. The connection can be summed up thus: In a world where extended, high-quality interaction with fellow human beings is infrequent, substantive ideas are rarely exchanged and critiqued, and therefore embodied academia provides a last frontier of sorts where this vital activity is not only possible but required. For those who are connected to the internet for multiple hours in a day (which includes most of us, if we are honest), any ideas that arise tend to do so in without ever coming into contact with the outside world. Until people voice and discuss their ideas, counterexamples may go unpresented, extemporaneous tangents—often most fruitful in yielding unexpected insights— will go unexplored, and so on. To expand on the saying “two minds are better than one,” multiple academic minds are better than one.

In an online course, one’s writing and ideas can be corrected and graded, but no one is present with the online learner who can gradually, subtly shape how the learner thinks as the learner thinks it. This cognitive luxury of the student-teacher or peer relationship is encouraged in person, but is far more difficult to reproduce online. Furthermore, the student is less likely to approach the teacher for any sort of significant mentoring relationship, given the fact that a teacher is hard-pressed to show care or concern over the internet. It is visible displays of professorial sensitivity and personal interest (conveyed in posture, tone, facial expression, and so on) that tend to give students the confidence to seek out a deeper relationship with the teacher.

In the online classroom, the student and her thoughts, expressions, reactions, tone (but tone is scarce, given verbal silence on the part of the student) and logical processes occur in social isolation, without the possibility of rich, timely, socially sensitive, cognitively formative feedback. Without others physically present with the student, no one is present to refute bad mental processes or ideas, to question vague ideas, to demand examples, to provide counterexamples, to gently persuade the student that an apparently interesting insight is actually not so interesting after all (and is thus a waste of time to pursue), or to press for more elaboration where such is needed. Moreover, unpalatable ideas easily dismissed in the online environment may receive helpful pushback from students more sympathetic to the idea. Consider this example: A theology student rolls his eyes when the professor mentions a well-known dispensationalist seminary. A peer sympathetic to some threads of dispensationalist theology notices the disapproving facial expression, and asks for the reason behind the eye roll. It comes to the surface that the eye-rolling student has always assumed that all dispensationalist theologies resemble the popular (and theologically problematic) Left Behind novel series in some way. A discussion ensues which helps to clarify the different scholarly perspectives within dispensationalism, leads to increased respect for the aforementioned seminary, and allows all parties involved to forge ahead in their views with an appropriate level of scholarly nuance and accuracy.

People need a great deal of practice articulating their ideas to each other, not only for the purposes of shaping intellectual processes and crystallizing knowledge, but also because it is precisely in such multi-minded environments that the best thoughts and ideas are born. Iron sharpens iron, as the Proverb goes, and the friction necessary to create sufficient sharpness for battle is best found in person. Discomfort and disagreement profoundly shape and train a thinker, and due to the human propensity to flee such formative situations, the online environment provides an ideal setting in which to ignore the uncomfortable. This is often the case even in threaded discussions, which tend to be an exercise in minimalistic hoop-jumping rather than an arena for robust academic conversation.

A society driven by technological advances favors processing speed, efficiency, and personal convenience over meticulous, socially sensitive, organic (read: flexible and varied), high-quality interaction with people and ideas. The pursuit of information has become more important than embodied relationships. Part of the value of being physically present in one's classes is the possibility of building relationships-- professional and otherwise. As discussed previously, these relationships are the seedbed of new ideas, discarded bad ideas, helpful examples, discussion of previously unknown conferences or professional organizations, and ultimately, mutual inspiration and encouragement to press on in this challenging, disorienting, and often discouraging world of academia.

To be continued. Stay tuned for "Assault on the Academic Ethos," "Information-Age Epistemology," and more...

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Against the Reign of Online Education: Responding to the Rise of the Faceless Classroom (Part 1 )

This essay will be posted in a currently unknown number of installments. 

In the age of the internet, instant information is at the fingertips of anyone with access to an internet connection. Because computer-accessed information is so convenient-- and convenience is one of the chief information-age virtues-- educational institutions have understandably become attracted to online forms of education. An online course can exist even when physical space is limited, or when there are scheduling conflicts due to busy students. Moreover, the student of an online course need not spend a dime on gasoline, find childcare, or even change out of his or her pajamas to "attend school." It should come as no surprise, then, that online education is being warmly embraced and enthusiastically adopted by educational institutions.

Because contemporary academic organizations have become transfixed by online education's promise of a global reach and thus a geographically unrestricted student body (and further, a geographically boundless source of income), those concerned with pedagogy (and sadly, not all educators are) must ask whether this trendy educational exodus out of the embodied learning environment is ultimately of help or harm to the cause of true education. The fact that we can do something in no way means that we should. I love Blue Bell ice cream—more than any other dessert, in fact—but I do not eat it for my meals (not regularly, anyway) because that would be a most unhealthy lifestyle choice.

To continue the metaphor, if technology is like food, we must determine whether it is “junk food” or “health food.” As Neil Postman taught, no technology is neutral. What Postman meant was that in some way, every technology—for better or for worse— shapes the people that use it and, therefore, their culture. He stated that shaping power well: "New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop" (Technopoly, p. 20).

Because technology changes “the nature of community” and culture itself, no technology should ever go uncritiqued. The stakes are too high to neglect adequate evaluation of our culture shapers. Therefore, let us take a good look at that which is too often viewed with indiscriminate favor: online education. For the duration of this series, my intention is to provide a counterbalance to the prevailing sentiment regarding this topic. It should not surprise the reader, then, that this counterbalance will be predominantly negative. If this series succeeds in slowing gushing technophiles down so that they carefully reconsider their philosophy of online education, then I will consider such a litany of negativity a success.

To be continued...