Professors say total online education would cripple critical thinking, personal relations

By Jordan Bates on April 10th, 2013

In the midst of an evolving job market and the recent explosion in online learning resources, a vocal minority claims that paying to attend an institution of higher education is difficult to justify. Others, professional academics most notably, wholeheartedly disagree.

Unless you’ve been living in a hole for 20 years, you know the Internet has prompted the re-imagining of many aspects of our world. Recently, massive open online courses (MOOCs) from accredited universities and resources such as Coursera and Khan Academy have been gaining acceptance, prompting many to speculate that higher education is on the verge of revolution.

‘Jump-Through-Hoops Certificate’

According to TV host and video blogger Dan Brown, these online resources, combined with more flexible work possibilities, make it more feasible than ever to find work without a degree. This state of affairs, Brown said, is likely to force certain changes in how our society percieves higher education.

“I don’t believe that the entire university system will collapse, but there’s absolutely an ‘education bubble’ in the process of bursting,” Brown said. “The traditional economic model of ‘corporations hire recent college graduates for life’ is eroding — being replaced by a freelancing/odd job/I-work-from-home-and/or-a-coffee shop revolution. As more and more talented people realize that they can jump into the adult world without a degree, having a degree will become a less and less reliable indicator of talent.”

Brown added that universities are still valuable sites for interacting with people who possess similar passions, but that the cost of attending a university is no longer justified by what one often gains from the experience.

“As long as universities continue to be the best place for that sort of interaction, they can absolutely charge a premium for it,” Brown said. “What’s in trouble are big lecture halls that just shower students with facts, ‘Intro to Library’-type classes, $300 textbooks and institutions that assume a ‘I can jump through hoops’ certificate is worth upwards of $50,000.”

Missing the Point

Brown’s sentiments reflect a sense that universities have become a sort of obstacle course, where students gain factual information through the rigmarole of a several-year process, ultimately for the purpose of attaining a piece of paper that will land them a job. English professor Rhonda Garelick asserted that this situation has resulted from the gradual imposition of a corporate model onto the education system.

“The problem is not exactly with MOOCs so much as with what has been happening for years now to the ‘regular’ university,” Garelick said. “Which is – its slow slide into a corporate model, in which preparation for ‘business’ jobs replaces a liberal arts education and a factory-assembly-line approach rules; where low course enrollments for less ‘popular’ subjects such as classics or medieval studies can lead to the elimination of whole departments; where students are considered consumers to be entertained rather than young people we are helping to guide into adulthood, where foreign language study is all but disappearing.”

For Garelick, it seems that the questions surrounding the relevance of modern universities are the result of a culture that has lost sight of the purpose of higher education.

“If you read David Brooks’s (April 5) column in (the) NYTimes, you will see that even he subscribes to a very instrumental, technical view of university learning – dividing it into ‘practical’ knowledge and ‘technical’ knowledge,” Garelick said. “What even Mr. Brooks, a University of Chicago history graduate, leaves out is the single most important thing – universities teach and model critical thinking, curiosity, persistence, the acquisition of a cultivated, questioning mind and inner life. None of those things can really be acquired via online education.”

‘Reading the Dictionary’

What online education can provide, and what Brown emphasized, is information. Brown commented that free online resources make it necessary for universities to re-invent any aspects of their systems that are founded solely in information distribution.

“Two dominant trends of our time are decentralization and information freedom,” Brown said. “Insofar as universities are centralized information brokers, it makes sense that their power will wane in the coming decades. A simple question every university should be asking about everything that they do is ‘could Khan Academy render this irrelevant?’ Any time the answer is yes, it’s time to rethink their approach.”

Although almost anyone would agree that online resources convey information, Garelick maintained that acquiring information is not the same as learning, and that students need to gain more sophisticated means of processing knowledge.

“(What is lost in online learning is) how to frame that information, what the ‘tone’ or political slant in culling the information is; how that information compares with other versions of it, the depth or seriousness of research used to find it; what is being left out of the information, and how to read those omissions or gaps,” Garelick said. “The list is endless. Indeed, it is not a list. Information is not learning. Period. If I handed you a Romanian dictionary, would you speak Romanian?”

'Classroom Connection'

In addition to considerations of the differences between information absorption and actual learning, Garelick also expressed concern at the potentially detrimental consequences of exchanging human-to-human education for screen-to-screen.

“Online education is not even slightly comparable to a human university experience,” Garelick said. “‘Online’ is not simply a variation on ‘setting’ – this is not about venue or backdrop – this is about a lived, human interaction being replaced with something more like a corporate commodity – to be consumed at one’s convenience, packaged identically for everyone, and discussed on the merits of ‘cost.’”

Garelick elaborated on this idea, explaining that professors model the workings of an intellectual mind for students.

“A professor is not a machine dispensing information,” Garelick said. “A professor is a person who has devoted herself to study and scholarship, whose interaction with students demonstrates for them not just information about a given subject, but a way of thinking, a certain level of cultivation, a familiarity and pleasure with ideas, with debate, with questioning. This might be intermittently visible online during a lecture, but it is also part of the ineffable experience of knowing someone.”

Marco Abel, a professor of English and film studies, spoke further about the value of the in-person university experience. He said that the affective component of a teacher-learner relationship does not translate well to the online landscape.

“In my view affect — which isn’t just ‘emotion’ but a matter of ‘being affected by someone or something’ as well as ‘the power to affect someone’ — cannot be replicated in an online environment, or, rather, it’s a fundamentally different ‘affect’ that circulates in the online environment,” Abel said. “And I happen to think that this is crucial to the learning experience — that is, I think that a lot gets lost in an online environment when the effects that are characteristic of ... face-to-face teaching, are no longer present.”

Moreover, Garelick added that student-to-student interaction is also a central component of learning that is lost online.

“The human interaction not just between professor and student, but among students — in a single classroom, and at lunch, in the dorms, in hallways, etc. — is not incidental to learning, it is learning,” she said. “Studies repeatedly show that online courses have an extremely high drop out rate, and this is likely because the freedom and flexibility themselves do not encourage the cohesiveness and sense of responsibility to a group and investment in a subject and experience that human classrooms do.”

Brown, on the other hand, argued that society is likely to develop new institutions that can duplicate the social role of the university, at least in terms of student networking.

“We are still growing into the digital renaissance — it’s shortsighted to assume that we won’t build new institutions to serve a social role parallel to the role universities play today,” Brown said. “Of course Google hangouts will never replace the experience of getting drunk on Four Loko, passing out in a dorm bathroom and networking with those who shared the experience well into adulthood, but in an age of social networking and constant communication I’m not worried about the millennial generation’s contact lists.”

'Wired Education'

For Abel, the very idea that education could be transformed into a one-size-fits-all online classroom is representative of an attempt to commodify education, which he indicated is a misguided course of action.

“In the end, as far as I’m concerned, MOOCs are merely the educational expression of a logic of neoliberalism that must be resisted,” Abel said. “MOOCs are an accountant’s version of education – no offense to accountants: I’m the son of one — and while accountants are necessary and good at what they do, basing a university on it — and this is where this is heading — is a terrible mistake.”

As far as Garelick is concerned, online learning does have potential to provide value, but that value should always be an addition to the brick-and-mortar university experience.

“I think (online learning) has value for some things,” Garelick said. “I think big lectures in certain subjects can translate well to the online experience. I think certain kinds of technical information and skill can be taught online. But these must be add-ons or enhancements to the experience, not replacements for college.”

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