Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Some unoriginal thoughts about online education

I’m just wrapping up 12 weeks of online teaching over this summer—three sections in total. All in all, I’m exhausted…days filled with wrangling two children and nights filled with discussion boards and essays. While I can see some value in the online format (all students forced to write a lot and actually participate), I also think we are losing something important as education increasingly goes this route. Real teaching and learning does go on online, but it also seems like it further makes a college degree another commodity and not an experience that enriches human life (I know I’m sounding romantic here, but I do want to be idealistic about teaching and learning). The lack of face-to-face sociality seriously diminishes the significance of the process.

In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer notes the limitations of social networking sites like Facebook and Google+ to take the place of social interaction, where “technology as a potential substitute for our analog life.” Lehrer argues, and I agree that, “there is simply too much value in face-to-face contact, in all the body language and implicit information that doesn’t translate to the Internet.” I think his conclusion applies just as well to online teaching/learning as it does to social networking.

No one would argue that one should only socialize on the internet, but an increasing number of classes and students are headed in that direction. In my experience as a teacher of online courses and an administrator who schedules them, I have never had to cancel one due to low enrollments (okay, I did once, but I added the course to the class schedule a week before classes began just to see if it would go). In fact, at the moment, my email inbox is full of requests from students to be added to maxed out online sections.

We live in a society where most of our interactions with other human beings are instrumental or secondary, meaning that they are temporary relationships that are a means rather than an end. Most of the people I encounter in my everyday life, I do so to get something done: buy food, get gas, mail a letter, etc. However, it seems to me that the most gratifying part of human life—and I do think this goes for all people in all places and all times—is basic social interaction only for the sake of human connection. My fondest memories are rarely filled with instrumental relationships, rather, they are full of friends and family with whom I’m simply hanging out. From my reading of the anthropological literature, I’m convinced that humans derive their most fundamental sense of meaning from this kind of social exchange.

The classroom is one place where a set of quasi-instrumental/secondary relationships (teacher/student) organically merges into a set of quasi-primary human relationships. It’s a liminal space where one can regularly develop intellectually and culturally meaningful links with other human beings. While students do pay to take classes, the classroom experience isn’t a commoditized one. Over the course of four months, you see and speak with a group of other humans regularly. As a semester unfolds, classes develop personalities and both students and the instructor create memories. I always look forward to a new semester beginning and meeting a new batch of students. Sure, many will disappoint and not be as engaged with the material as I, and other students are, but still, they are human beings who I will see and likely remember. I got to know people and they got to know me. And maybe most importantly, I can be sarcastic without resorting to emoticons.

While I’m sure many of my online students are intelligent, funny, curious people, I don’t really get the full feel of them as humans. They are names on a roster and assignments in a digital dropbox. I “know” them to as boxes on a to-do list of grading. As soon as the semester ends, those names evaporate from my daily experience and lose their meaning.

A friend of mine, who also teaches online and shares similar sentiments, made the observation that online classes are just the “work” of school with none of the social discourse that made college memorable. I know online classes are convenient for a great many people with serious scheduling constraints, and likely have helped them move up in their careers, I really do think like some basic humanness is lost in the process.

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