What You Lose When You’re Not There: “The Trouble With Online Education”

I felt guilty when I started teaching at UC Santa Cruz because students (or their parents) paid tuition expecting that they’d be taught by an actual professor. Instead they got me–a graduate student instructor with a fresh college diploma and no real training as a teacher. But at least I was there with my students at every class, working with them to help improve their writing. If I were a parent of student today I’d be concerned about paying fees and getting a URL or a recording instead.

This morning I was writing an article about the challenges posed by creating and delivering remote or recorded presentations when I came across this op-ed by Mark Edmundson in The New York Times. Part of the fallout from the recent ouster (and reinstatement) of University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan, the piece argues that the current focus on online education is ultimately short sighted because online courses are rarely (or never) going to provide a first-rate educational experience.

If you think none of this applies to you because you’re not a college student, think again. Meetings, training and presentations in the business environment have moved online far faster than classes have at universities. And they suffer from the exact same kinds of problems.

All the conference calls and videoconferences you sit through, the recorded (and mandatory) sexual harassment training, the Excel classes, are plagued by the same failures that occur when events aren’t held live and in person. People fail to engage and their attention wanders. Speakers can’t take advantage of the physical presence of their audience in order to amuse, charm, scare or cajole them into believing their agenda. Presentations are reduced to bullet points and “facts” instead of dialogue.

Have you ever found yourself on a conference call and so bored out of your mind that you start surfing the web, replying to email or even leaving the room to go get a cup of coffee? I know I have. That’s the kind of failure we’re talking about. How much do you learn in those sessions?

As someone who started teaching at a university more than 20 years ago, back when email accounts were brand new and computers were almost unheard of in classrooms, I may be a little old-fashioned about education. Still, I can’t imagine how online courses can begin to replicate the interactions that great teachers have with their students, or even the the relationships that engaged students have with each other.

Edmundson’s piece seems so spot-on that I’m tempted to just paste the whole thing below. But I’m going to resist, so please click on the link and go read it in it’s entirety. Below are a few of my favorite bits, like when he points out that it’s impossible to recreate online the experience of having a teacher who is able to “read” the room and adjust their material to fit the audience (something I called being “obectively engaged” when I wrote about it before).

We tend to think that the spellbinding lecturers we had in college survey classes were gifted actors who could strut and fret 50 amazing minutes on the stage. But I think that the best of those lecturers are highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this — tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it. Their every joke is a sounding. It’s a way of discerning who is out there on a given day.

As Edmundson points out, teaching is a dialogue, a relationship with the audience, not something that can be broadcast to any random group to achieve the desired effect. In fact the nature of recorded presentations, whether they’re college classes, corporate trainings or sales presentations, mean that they are targeted to the broadest possible audience and not tailored for specific needs. Which should be a problem for anyone hoping to get a first-class education online.

With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.

Online classes tend to be reduced from a collaborative effort between the students and their teacher to a collection of facts that they might just as well read from a book on their own. It seems unlikely that anyone is ever going to fondly reflect back on the great online class they took in college when the audience doesn’t get a real chance to participate.

A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates. You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. 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.

The big push behind the effort to move so many presentations online, whether they’re university classes or corporate events, is to save money and make them available to more people. But it’s all a waste of time and resources if the result is substandard or no one is paying attention. After teaching at UCSC I spent many years managing the training department at a huge law firm and talked to many trainers and training managers who had invested huge sums of money in online training only to find out that no one actually used it.

Unfortunately, the stakes are different in the business and educational environments. If a meeting turns out to be a waste of time people can adjust and try something new. But if students graduate from (or drop out of) an online program and find they haven’t learned anything useful, they often don’t get another chance.



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