* Disclaimer: Due to likely misunderstanding (which routinely
occurs), please note that, as my title carefully dictates, my opponent is
"the reign of online education" rather than online
education itself. This series combats the idea that online
learning "rules" and is nearly as good as or even superior to
embodied learning. I use the internet, am thankful for many benefits the
internet offers, and I understand that there are times when online education is
Before reading any further, please read Part I here, and Part II here.
What makes a strong, respected academic institution? Perhaps examples come to mind of actual institutions which garner respect, such as Oxford, Cambridge, American Ivy League schools, and so on, but what is it about these places that placed them above the rest in so many minds? Institutions such as these are known for rigor, for a certain climate of academic seriousness, for turning out respected members of society, and for having reliable, longstanding traditions of such. If we walk the grounds of these schools, we find that the campuses contain very old, usually beautiful buildings, which put us immediately in touch with the particular school's past. This physical contact with academic history affects the sensitive person's psyche, often compelling one to read a book, or sit quietly under a tree. Furthermore, professionalism is contagious. If a campus has well-dressed, well-mannered, extremely studious occupants, then any new individual will feel out of place and (positively) pressured to rise to their level. Whether or not the person has the capacity to actually attain this goal is beside the point. In short, a quiet, studious campus, especially one with a beautiful, professional, academic ethos, has a certain amount of power in itself to shape the lives and habits of individuals.
There is no campus in the online classroom besides the computer room. There is no need for professional appearance, for the student only sees his or her computer. There are no other students seen studying, and no one is nearby talking about an interesting lecture or an upcoming academic conference. When only taking classes online, one cannot run into professors in the student center or parking lot, and have an impromptu discussion. Furthermore, online classes do not facilitate training, either implicitly or explicitly, of the students to speak clearly and well. This is because no one ever hears the students speak! When taking an online class, one can take one's time (to a certain extent) in coming up with responses, because type is all that is measured. Yes, one is required to read and write for the faceless, online professor, but reading and writing are hardly the only components of well-rounded education. The fact that one completes reading and writing assignments says little of his or her overall habits as a fully-orbed scholar. To use track as an example, record times are rarely set alone or in practice. This is because, when running a race, competitive instincts are triggered by the intensity of other runners who have been dedicated to training and winning. The point is not necessarily to win the race (although this was precisely the point for me when I ran track), but instead, to run one's personal best. We frequently find that our personal best is accomplished alongside other souls who are working hard and dedicated to their task. A person risks missing out on taking his or her scholarship to even higher levels when he or she is immersed primarily (or only) in the isolated online classroom.
Moreover, the embodied exchange of and critique of ideas aids in teaching us how to respectfully disagree and defend our own views. When confronted with people who think differently than we do, we are presented with the opportunity to practice professional respect of and appreciation for those with ideas and worldviews other than our own. In the real world, the disagreeing party cannot be made to disappear by opening another tab or closing the laptop. Online, one can easily avoid paying adequate attention to unfavorable ideas in favor of others. It also provides a safe environment for the marginalization and outright rejection of ideas that perhaps should be taken more seriously. A computer cannot respond to or even detect the sigh, skeptically raised eyebrow, or eye-roll of a student as can a professor or another student. These subtle, but important, reactions are part of how we judge the success of a given argument. By contrast, having a disagreement with another embodied human, from whom one cannot easily escape, has the power to prompt changed or deepened ideas.
When the online “classroom” is one’s intellectual training ground, the person is placed into an artificial, unrealistic, socially sterile environment where attention and respect can be selectively given with little to know social or professional consequences. In embodied discussion, a student cannot so easily get away with dismissive reasoning, special pleading, or disrespect for good ideas with which he or she may disagree. The embodied classroom environment provides a community of intellectual checks, balances, and, from there, further refinement. In the online classroom, one only has to turn down the volume of the lecture, skip ahead in the power points, tune out and click onto Facebook, answer the cell phone, check e-mail, break up a dog fight (it has happened to me), and so on. The possibilities for unbridled intellectual minimalism while taking an online class are seemingly endless. One can engage in these inattentive behaviors in a traditional classroom, true, but there exists varying types and degrees of helpful social pressure against such things.
Online learning creates a private, subjective idea environment that offers only grades and perhaps brief comments for feedback. This does nothing to help the development of the whole person who should be testing out ideas in community, thus learning evaluation skills, debate techniques, and other points of view from peers and the professor. Learning is far better when done within a system of other minds. Moreover, online learning does nothing to alleviate the problem of self-centeredness. Instead, when one primarily learns alone, one may become increasingly convinced that he or she has very good points, and thinks and speaks rather well. Only when learning alongside other people consistently can one begin to retrain one's sensibilities away from the self and toward the outside world and other souls. Then, objective evaluation of one's own ideas can lead to growth.
The online marketplace of ideas is now chaotic, without hierarchy, without context, and faceless. Postman calls this "information-glut." In the midst of the information-glut epidemic, we are actively neglecting the remedy-- participating in a world of ideas with other human beings who can weigh, invent, deconstruct, and reconstruct ideas together. A stable academic institution therefore finds its stability and respectability in its people and in their ability to train students to wisely navigate the realm of ideas and our contemporary digital onslaught of information. On the other hand, institutional respectability is not found in its technological achievements, access to and dissemination of mere information. Being encouraged (or forced) to participate in the embodied classroom exposes the student to a complex, interactive thought-world which cannot be sufficiently reproduced by an online version of the same class. Of course, a physical classroom does not guarantee an interactive environment, but at least the format encourages such an environment. None of this is to say learning, even good learning does not happen in the online classroom. It can, and it frequently does. However, there are costs and benefits to all that we do, and we must be honest about what we gain and what are giving up in favor of convenience. I maintain that while there may be a place for online education, it remains inferior to the real thing.