Internet

Online Education Is Lonely, Joyless, and One-Size-Fits-All, Says New York Times Columnist Who Has Apparently Never Been on the Internet

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In today's New York Times, University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson manages to get online education—which he calls "one of the most vexing issues now facing colleges and universities"—spectacularly wrong. Below, a Whitman's Sampler of a few lowlights:

Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.

Doing things online makes people more lonely, eh? Tell that the members of this breast cancer support group (or this one or this one). Or the gay teenagers watching It Gets Better videos. Or Reason commenters, for that matter. 

Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we've known since Socrates.

Too bad collective intellectual enterprises are impossible online.

Not long ago I watched a pre-filmed online course from Yale about the New Testament. It was a very good course. The instructor was hyper-intelligent, learned and splendidly articulate. But the course wasn't great and could never have been. 

Edmundson is right that such lectures can be less-then-thrilling. (Though he conveniently forgets, as critics of online education nearly always do, that many—perhaps most—lectures in a traditional classroom environment could be described the same way.) But watching a 50-minute video of a pre-filmed lecture is quite unlikely to be the future for online education. New media offer new advantages, but it takes awhile to adapt. Have you ever seen a stage play filmed with a single stationery camera? Horrible. But only a stasist would think that meant movies "can never be great." 

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. 

Actually, most traditional classrooms contain more monologue than dialogue already. ("Anyone? anyone?"). But dozens of for-profit companies (and nonprofits) are working right now to solve that problem by offering products that make it possible for teachers to get feedback from their students in real time. Weekly quizzes, midterms, or final papers are crude tools to gauge whether anyone in the room has any idea what the teacher is talking about. A bunch of kids sitting at computers can be tested twice a day, twice an hour, or twice a minute to make sure they are following the lesson. If they're not, a human teacher can intervene—by chat, email, phone, or in person—or the program can just serve up pre-crafted remedial modules that have helped kids with similar problems in the past. Edmundson may be right that the very best, top of the line education experience should have a face-to-face component. But for an awful lot of students, an automated program may be able to offer more of a dialogue than in-person profs have the ability or inclination to do. 

A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don't think an Internet course ever will.

Yep, it is sad that there's no dialoguesparking intellectual joy available anywhere on the Internet

More Reason on online ed.

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  1. New York Tims? Budget woes have them so down they’re cutting back on letter usage?

    1. Some call it the New York…….Tim.

  2. I don’t know about you guys, but when I read comments I imagine us all just talking in a sauna, drinking beers fast before they get piss warm, loosening up and just waiting to see where things go. It’s the internet that gets in the way.

    1. I wish people would stop checking out my junk. A little solitude would actually be nice.

      1. I know, right?

        *mentally pulls out bottle of lotion as sauna thermometer goes up 0.2 degrees*

    2. In my mind, we are in the lounge of a cruise ship sailing the inside passage in Alaska. The regulars have their chairs drawn up in a circle, and the rest of us are seated or standing in concentric circles. The H squirrel R Salon.

      1. I’m glad to see the H*squirrel*R nomenclature is catching on.

    3. Instead of a sauna, we should consider a streetside cafe, so we can deploy TEH MALE GAZE on attractive female passersby.

      1. How ’bout a popular beach? The GAZE gains power at the beach.

  3. It’s all a desperate rationalization.

    The same way the internet made daily newspapers in every city redundant and excessive, the internet will eventually make thousands of free-standing colleges and universities redundant and excessive.

    And that cannot be allowed to happen, for the simple reason that it would force a large number of superfluous people with graduate degrees to dig ditches for a living.

    “Go into debt $150,000 to get networking opportunities and to avoid loneliness!” Yeah, OK.

    1. The crazy thing is – all those tenured brick-and-mortar profs could most likely still be profs, because the demand for university education will increase with the availability of online degrees and classes. It’s just that they need to be willing to give up those sweet, sweet tenure perks. And admit they’re in it for the perks, not the “passion”.

      1. Well, sure. I love my subject and I love teaching what I know to interested students. However, I love making a comfortable living as well. I especially love having food on the table and clothes on my back.

      2. all those tenured brick-and-mortar profs could most likely still be profs, because the demand for university education will increase with the availability of online degrees and classes.

        Actually, I think if you put our current college population into online classes, you would find you need a hell of a lot fewer professors. You can pick up some serious economies of scale on-line. I’d be curious to know what the schools that actually do on-line degree programs have for staffing ratios.

        1. I’d think you still have problems with grading? Yeah, that’s what TAs are for, I know, but still, it requires man hours.

          1. We’re actually being bullied into using an online grading system for calculus now. Which is fine for about 60% of the grading you would normally do, but that 40% is a disaster if you try to have a computer grade it.

    2. It always surprises me how anti-internet so many educators are…my kids hae been told they are not allowed to use wikipedia to source high school papers…the incessant handwringing over online education (much of it delivered via for profit competitors)…it’s blackboards and pontificating sages on a stage for all!

      1. .my kids hae been told they are not allowed to use wikipedia to source high school paper

        As they should. In my opinion, Wikipedia has not reached the standard where it should be considered as a valid primary or secondary source for academic writing. Does that mean Wikipedia is useless? No, I think it’s an excellent resource if you view it like a “Cliff’s Notes” or something to that degree. But c’mon, it’s just as easy to search JSTOR as it is Wikipedia.

        1. hahaha we got a ‘teacher’ on our hands..

      2. If it is a decent wikipedia entry, all you have to do is go to the references section and voila, sources.

        1. Yes. Its important to learn early about the differences between sources that are consistently reputable (peer reviewed journals that aren’t Lancet, etc) and sources that have highly variable reputations backing their information. Wikipedia isn’t always wrong, but it isn’t always right, either.

      3. “It always surprises me how anti-internet so many educators are”

        Why? Are you surprised that newspapers are anti-blog? Or that Wal-Mart is anti-Amazon?

        They’re just protecting their racket.

    3. Some of my best connections have been via the internet. And I know I’m not alone. Went to a friend’s wedding who I went to HS with. He had five or six people turn up who he’d never met IRL before then.

    4. It would also harm certain ideologies that have wedged themselves into the programs need to obtain most employment in the same way that religious groups used to with the universities of old.

  4. Can’t beat them? Let’s accuse them of all the things that happen in brick and mortar classes.

    Poor little Edmundson is just scared that more and more people will go online to get their education, killing his nice little tenured job at UVA.

    I’m going to school through online courses. If I have a problem, I’m an email or phone call away from at least 3 instructors in every class. I can get on any of the forums for the classes and ask questions to fellow students.

    I hate these innovation-stifling cunts.

  5. only academia could spawn this level of cognitive dissonance. Never dawned on the professor that the online option means convenience for folks who work during the day? Or whose jobs require travel, thus making physical attendance impossible?

    Of course, not; the ivory tower only travels to conferences where people can hear meticulously researched and navel-gazed papers on things like water being wet, men and women being different, and mating habits of beetles.

    1. Or did Edmundson ever consider that an instructor at the vaunted and revered UVA could actually use the internet to make money for himself? I don’t know, maybe by tutoring students in remote places and charging them money? Or that if he was good at his job, and could get paid per pupil enrolled in his classes, he could seriously increase his salary by getting literally thousands of students in his classes each semester?

      This guy is a douche. An old douche.

    2. No, because they scorn the filthy mongol hoards that seek knowledge for its practical application, rather than seek knowledge for the sheer glory of being smarter than everyone else. Of course it’s lonely when you can’t sit in a classroom and bask in the radiant glow of the professor’s knowledge. If you’re not doing that, you must be living in solitary darkness.

      This is just another case of an industry lamenting that it is being pushed into irrelevance by the internet, by bashing the new medium as inferior to the current (already crappy and overly-expensive) medium.

  6. How about this?

    Nobody will get raped at a frat party as part of an online course.

    PEW PEW PEW!!!! Shootin’ em down using the ol’ Jezebel gun.

    1. Nobody will get raped at a frat party as part of an online course.

      You know I’ve been thinking about starting a business…..

      1. Online frat raping? I dunno.

        1. I’m sure there’s an app that brings together girls who get stupid when they drink to much with boys who can afford lots of alcohol.

          1. It’s called Facebook.

            1. Now that you mention it, that is how I use facebook. Well, that and pretending that I care about my friends’ kids.

        2. Facebook? You mean someone already stole my idea? Curse you Mark Zuckerberg!

    2. If this was a real place, Mary would have suicide bombed us all by now.

  7. Mark Edmundson: Online education might end up lowering my bloated paycheck.

  8. “Though he conveniently forgets, as critics of online education nearly always do, that many?perhaps most?lectures in a traditional classroom environment could be described the same way.”

    This reminds me of Thomas Sowell’s three questions to any liberal argument. 1 is “Compared to what ?”

    (the other two being: At what cost ? and Where are your facts?)

  9. I hate my current job (environmental remediation, a field where we spend the majority of time filling out safety plans). For the past few years I had an urge to get into programming, but until the beginning of this year I hadn’t spent a lick of time with a programming language. I’ve spent the past few months learning computer programming concepts and a variety of languages by using online tutorials, books, modules and message boards (and more, I’m sure), each of which was completely free. Some were much more useful than others. There were a few courses from which I only studied a few, relevant lessons. The thing is, I have been able to craft the education that’s right for me. After a grounding in the basics I’ve gone on to build a few different programs of increasing levels of complexity. And I never needed a professor to tell me what to do next. Now I have a few low-pay projects lined up and within the next several months I hope to leverage my skills into something more permanent, if still entry level.

    Most importantly, this is the most fun I’ve ever had in a learning environment.

    In short, this guy is a tool.

    1. Where do you work (if you don’t mind saying)? I might be in the office next to you.

    2. ocw.mit.edu.

      The intro to programming is pretty first rate if you just want to learn basic (java) syntax and universal structures. I’d hire someone who could show me they’d worked through all of those.

      1. My 13 year old son will be sending a resume shortly.
        Never thought Minecraft would inspire anything useful, but it prompted him to start to learn Java – checking out books, watching You Tube videos and finally, taking an online course through our local CC.

        1. I get at least 3 recruiting emails a day looking for programmers. I got out of the game, but CS degrees are not the way to go if you want to earn upper middle class money starting at 20. I would certainly hire someone who taught themselves that way and could show me minecraft mods they built rather than a CS grad who wants to tell me about his bubble-sort optimization school project but can’t make a webpage call a database.

  10. How can anyone not be excited by the potential–much already realized–of the Internet for education? Seriously, how effed up do you have to be not to see that? Is it because it would detrimentally affect the employment prospects of certain politically favored groups?

    1. These people would rather smart kids die of boredom in their shitty schools than use the Khan Academy.

      1. Oh, he teaches K-12? Because that’s the exact description of my educational career before college, but without Khan Academy.

          1. That’s a great site. My dad has watched a bunch of those videos, and I’ve seen a few myself.

  11. Traditional teaching methods aren’t that great anyway. Day one of the CPA review course I took, the instructor explained that he would not be doing things as we were used to from college. Rather than read the material, take a quiz and then hear the lecture, he would give us the lecture so we had some grounding before we read the material, then have a review and discussion before doing the practice questions for the exam. Why ? Because he wasn’t interested in busting us for misunderstanding or failing a pop quiz; he wanted us to Learn. Why ? Because anyone who failed the CPA exam could retake the review course for free. So yeah, Edmundson isn’t interested in teaching, he’s just protecting his turf.

    1. Rather than read the material, take a quiz and then hear the lecture

      You took the quiz before the lecture? And this happened so often you consider it ‘traditional’ instructional methodology? Where and when did you go to school, if I may ask?

      1. When: 30+ years ago sonny.
        Where: a small religious affiliated college in the Midwest.
        In fairness, not all my profs did it that way, but it wasn’t uncommon. The idea, such as it was, that you should comprehend the material well enough from reading it to pass a short (10 or 20 question) quiz.
        My point really is that it was eye-opening to have an instructor say, in effect, I am not your adversary.

        1. Huh…takes all kinds, I guess. 🙂

          My philosophy as a teacher is that if you can understand the reading enough so you can pass a test on it, why do you need to hear me jabber on about the same topic afterwards?

          I design my assessments to incorporate information from both the readings and in-class lecture and discussion. In a heavily-text based course, I use my lecture time as a way to help my students understand what they read and ask questions. I couldn’t imagine testing them before that.

          That having been said, as a student I have had the “adversarial professor” type. I haven’t a clue as to where they’re coming from, probably because I’m not a sociopath.

          1. It’s not sociopathy as much as a gatekeeper mentality. We must keep the weak-minded out of the citadel! Only the strong of will can pass! I used to see it a lot in military courses. It’s not just about teaching you the skills or imparting the knowledge, it’s also about making sure that the student measures up to the instructor’s vision of a course graduate.

            Plus, usually, a big dose of ‘kids these days’. Back when I took this course, it was far more difficult!

            1. I have run into cases where professors “curve down”, eg, if the class average is 92% and your average is 92%, you get a C. I think that practice is unconscionable and leads to all sorts of pernicious effects (like students refusing to help each other) but there are quite a few adherents who claim it makes the A’s “worth more”… the other end of the pendulum from the social promoters, I guess.

    1. You were warned about Peak Admin!

  12. Actually, most traditional classrooms contain more monologue than dialogue already. (“Anyone? anyone?”).

    Your anecdote was referenced in an 80’s cult film. Your Cavanaugh-esque argument is rock-solid, Ms. Mangu-Ward!

  13. Do not try and take my lonliness and bitterness away. That’s what beer is for.

  14. Or Reason commenters, for that matter.

    We’re just lonely together, that’s all.

  15. I can’t be the only one in a professional field where this is pretty standard already. I’ve taught CPE classes on specific topics in a room with 40 people, and broadcast it to other offices in the firm in real-time. There are cameras and microphones in the conference rooms, and people can raise their hands or speak just like a regular classroom.

    Even if you don’t want to go the video conference route, you can still do the virtual classroom with or without cameras, and students can click the raise hand button, or just post questions directly (choosing to post publicly to the whole class or privately to the instructor). I’ve also attended lectures at my desk, the instructor is at her desk, and nobody is on the camera.

    There are so many options already for doing this in fields where education is a secondary, but necessary, focus.

    Of course you can have one of those intro to psych classes with 150 students in an amphitheater. I’m sure that being in the same room with the instructor makes a huge difference.

  16. In today’s New York Times,…

    No need to read any further.

    Why do you people keep coming back to such power-worshiping fraudsters? For validation? To flaunt smarts? ‘Cause that’s what the cool kids are reading? What?

    As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.

  17. Just wait till this starts to catch on with the home schooling crowd. The teachers will go apoplectic.

  18. Doing things online makes people more lonely, eh? Tell that the members of this breast cancer support group (or this one or this one). Or the gay teenagers watching It Gets Better videos. Or Reason commenters, for that matter.

    Edmunson is probably echoing the recent media narrative regarding the impact of excessive online use that was in Newsweek, but even then, there is a bit of a point. It’s tough to read the kind of shit that appears on Jezebel, Reddit, or microaggressions and not come to the conclusion that these people are leading sad, lonely, socially maladaptive existences.

  19. Yep you have to admit dude that makesa ll kinds fo sense. Wow.

    http://www.Full-Anon.tk

  20. The other change that will come from on-line higher ed is the dismantling of the massive political correctness bureaucracies (for a variety of reasons) and the loss of the sort of “immersion” environment that breeds indoctrination and groupthink.

    Both very positive developments, devoutly to be opposed (at least, when they realize that’s what’s coming) by the current higher ed panjandrums.

    1. That’s like 5% of the university system in the US at most. The collaborative university environment you slur is also responsible for the vast majority of technological and medical achievements since the 1600s.

      I know there’s a rightist dysfantasy of being accosted by Dadaist transexual women’s studies professors as soon as you set foot on a college campus, but really… I barely even notice their existence. If you prod people you’ll find they’re in love with BO but it’s not an oppressive atmosphere in the slightest.

      1. Stockholm syndrome at it’s finest.

  21. Or Reason commenters, for that matter.

    Well that part’s true. Reason commenters are all sad, lonely, basement dwellings shells of human beings. Everyone knows that.

  22. So KMW is comparing a top-flight balls-to-the-wall streamlined online education to an in-person course run by an indifferent professor. Not very fair.

    Weekly quizzes, midterms, or final papers are crude tools to gauge whether anyone in the room has any idea what the teacher is talking about. A bunch of kids sitting at computers can be tested twice a day, twice an hour, or twice a minute to make sure they are following the lesson.

    That technology already exists in classroom settings, for example the electronic clickers that instructors (usually for gigantic classes) can use to force students to (silently) answer multiple choice questions at various points during lecture. Doesn’t work for every field; college-level math in particular takes some time to digest before you can really expect people to be evaluated on it. But for lower level courses in math and the hard sciences, and any level of silly fields like English and history, it works pretty well.

    The biggest problems with online education are lack of laboratory time for the sciences and the lack of the opportunity to collaborate with other students. Yes, I know collaboration is *possible* but again, you’re comparing the top-flight perfectly running online school to a mediocre in-person institution.

  23. So KMW is comparing a top-flight balls-to-the-wall streamlined online education to an in-person course run by an indifferent professor. Not very fair.

    Weekly quizzes, midterms, or final papers are crude tools to gauge whether anyone in the room has any idea what the teacher is talking about. A bunch of kids sitting at computers can be tested twice a day, twice an hour, or twice a minute to make sure they are following the lesson.

    That technology already exists in classroom settings, for example the electronic clickers that instructors (usually for gigantic classes) can use to force students to (silently) answer multiple choice questions at various points during lecture. Doesn’t work for every field; college-level math in particular takes some time to digest before you can really expect people to be evaluated on it. But for lower level courses in math and the hard sciences, and any level of silly fields like English and history, it works pretty well.

    The biggest problems with online education are lack of laboratory time for the sciences and the lack of the opportunity to collaborate with other students. Yes, I know collaboration is *possible* but again, you’re comparing the top-flight perfectly running online school to a mediocre in-person institution.

  24. So KMW is comparing a top-flight balls-to-the-wall streamlined online education to an in-person course run by an indifferent professor. Not very fair.

    Weekly quizzes, midterms, or final papers are crude tools to gauge whether anyone in the room has any idea what the teacher is talking about. A bunch of kids sitting at computers can be tested twice a day, twice an hour, or twice a minute to make sure they are following the lesson.

    That technology already exists in classroom settings, for example the electronic clickers that instructors (usually for gigantic classes) can use to force students to (silently) answer multiple choice questions at various points during lecture. Doesn’t work for every field; college-level math in particular takes some time to digest before you can really expect people to be evaluated on it. But for lower level courses in math and the hard sciences, and any level of silly fields like English and history, it works pretty well.

    The biggest problems with online education are lack of laboratory time for the sciences and the lack of the opportunity to collaborate with other students. Yes, I know collaboration is *possible* but again, you’re comparing the top-flight perfectly running online school to a mediocre in-person institution.

  25. So KMW is comparing a top-flight balls-to-the-wall streamlined online education to an in-person course run by an indifferent professor. Not very fair.

    Weekly quizzes, midterms, or final papers are crude tools to gauge whether anyone in the room has any idea what the teacher is talking about. A bunch of kids sitting at computers can be tested twice a day, twice an hour, or twice a minute to make sure they are following the lesson.

    That technology already exists in classroom settings, for example the electronic clickers that instructors (usually for gigantic classes) can use to force students to (silently) answer multiple choice questions at various points during lecture. Doesn’t work for every field; college-level math in particular takes some time to digest before you can really expect people to be evaluated on it. But for lower level courses in math and the hard sciences, and any level of silly fields like English and history, it works pretty well.

    The biggest problems with online education are lack of laboratory time for the sciences and the lack of the opportunity to collaborate with other students. Yes, I know collaboration is *possible* but again, you’re comparing the top-flight perfectly running online school to a mediocre in-person institution.

  26. So KMW is comparing a top-flight balls-to-the-wall streamlined online education to an in-person course run by an indifferent professor. Not very fair.

    Weekly quizzes, midterms, or final papers are crude tools to gauge whether anyone in the room has any idea what the teacher is talking about. A bunch of kids sitting at computers can be tested twice a day, twice an hour, or twice a minute to make sure they are following the lesson.

    That technology already exists in classroom settings, for example the electronic clickers that instructors (usually for gigantic classes) can use to force students to (silently) answer multiple choice questions at various points during lecture. Doesn’t work for every field; college-level math in particular takes some time to digest before you can really expect people to be evaluated on it. But for lower level courses in math and the hard sciences, and any level of silly fields like English and history, it works pretty well.

    The biggest problems with online education are lack of laboratory time for the sciences and the lack of the opportunity to collaborate with other students. Yes, I know collaboration is *possible* but again, you’re comparing the top-flight perfectly running online school to a mediocre in-person institution.

    1. “The biggest problems with online education are lack of laboratory time for the sciences and the lack of the opportunity to collaborate with other students.” So far, in the experience of my wife, your first point is right on, but your second one, not so much.

  27. WTF, I refreshed after every submission and it wasn’t there.

    1. The squirrels take a smoke break at 3pm. H*squirrel*R is worthless from 3-3:10 or so.

  28. OnlinePublic school education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue.


  29. Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue.

    I received my Master’s through a distance learning program at UMass-Amherst. While UMass-Amherst isn’t that far from where I live now (assuming no traffic… not a good assumption), I didn’t want to quit my job and I wasn’t keen on setting foot on a college campus for classes. Their Video Instructional Program (now defunct) was a good fit and a good price.

    If I needed to talk to my professors, we were able to set up times to talk on the phone or talk via e-mail. The person KMW quoted has strange definitions of “monologue” and “dialogue”.

  30. My wife is involved in an online degree program. In choosing one, she did her homework, and her due diligence was rewarded: Students and professors interact with each other daily on discussion boards, and often in real-time chat, multimedia enrichment materials are provided every week, to supplement the well-selected textbooks. Papers are assigned and useful feedback from the professor provided several times during the term. Collaborative group projects are assigned and facilitated online. She does not find “distance education” any less rigorous or engaging than the traditional college experience, whether at university, college, or community college level. The columnist seems to have no clue.

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