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.
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.
More Reason on online ed.