If You Can’t See Out of the Ivory Tower, the Solution Is Not Higher Walls
July 22, 2012 1 Comment
Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, takes to the New York Times Op-ed page in order to make a rather close-minded argument against the proliferation of online learning:
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.
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.
Nothing Edmundson writes is factually wrong — online courses aren’t a great way to learn about literature. But nobody is suggesting online courses are a substitute for a 10 person Shakespeare class at one of the top universities in the world. What people are suggesting is that for a kid from Southeast D.C. with a gift for math but two siblings to take care of, online courses can provide a better means to get the credentials that will allow him to earn a middle class income. Online education is about creating a more open system that provides a path for people who can’t fit into the “pay $40k a year and live in the dorms” model.
The fact that Edmundson can’t even think beyond how online classes could hurt privileged UVA freshman is all the more reason that supporters of a more open education system need to be vigilant in their advocacy. It’s clear that many in the academia establishment, particularly those in the humanities, are not going to take too kindly to online learning and will do whatever they can to protect the intimacy and legitimacy of their in-person classes. I can’t exactly blame them. But that means it’s important to keep focusing not on what online learning can do for those who are already on campus, but what it can do for those who aren’t.