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...


  1. Sarah,
    1) I am simply not convinced that embodied presence is necessary for teaching and learning; an online student develops her own voice with her online class mates, uses emoticons (sometimes), go off on tangents. A discerning instructor in an online environment will take note of a student's responses and ideas, and will press them to develop their thinking further...and in some ways in greater depth, than what you might get in a normal face-to-face classroom environment.
    In fact, an experienced instructor will be able to identify flaws in thinking and offer counter-examples...and even better, will challenge a student to refute arguments and facts that are already established on a peer-reviewed website. The bonus is that the student will see that they are misinformed, or that they need to develop their thinking more clearly. You cannot always do this in the spontaneity of face-to-face classroom.
    2) You say, "This cognitive luxury of the student-teacher or peer relationship is encouraged in person, but is far more difficult to reproduce online."
    Why do you say this? I have students who write me back with questions about feedback at a frequency that I could only dream about in my face-to-face classes. Furthermore, in a face-to-face learning environment, a student can be or feel intimidated by their instructor, or think that the instructor is a push-over. I don't have this kind of experience online. Further, students in an online class, if they stay with it, many times will go into greater depth on a subject than what I find in many students I mentor in face-to-face classes.
    3) You say: "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."
    My experience says otherwise. It is not any harder to show interest in a student online than in a face-to-face context, if the instructor is attentive and sensitive to the student's learning needs.

  2. Regarding point (1), I am not arguing that embodied presence is necessary for teaching and learning. I fully accept that both can happen online. However, I am arguing that embodied presence provides a far richer learning and teaching experience than does the online version.

    Regarding point (2), I am glad that you are finding ways to overcome relational distance between professor and student in your courses. I can assure you that that is not the norm. I don't believe it is impossible to do it well, but it certainly is more difficult.

    Regarding point (3), see my response to point (2).

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  5. I won't disagree with your claims, but ask you to consider some trade-offs.

    For instance, there's current qualitative research in the educational field about all these issues. A counter-example might prove instructive: in a classroom size of anything over 10, there are students who hide and never discuss things in class or with the professor. In an online course, every student must contribute to the discussion in a substantive way via threaded discussions, etc.

    Current research in online classes actually finds that student ability to articulate complex topics actually increases, because the feedback from student posts on threaded discussions is more immediate and more often. Just consider how long it takes an in-class professor to get a paper back, with the rare opportunity for correction. The research indicates that emotional and intellectual clarity increases from the standard in-class discussion.

    That's not to say the tradeoffs you discuss are worth it. I don't think they are. It's just that if no technology is neutral, it might also have potential benefits.

  6. Thanks for the response, Dave! I think this closing paragraph from my Part I ought to explain more clearly just what I am trying to do in this series. I happily grant that there are benefits.

    "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."

  7. In short, this is a negative evaluation and not a dismissal.