The Necessity of Classroom Learning in College

With the rapid growth of online course enrollments, a debate in higher education has broken out concerning whether online instruction is as good as, or even better than, traditional, face-to-face, classroom instruction. Partisans of online learning point to the success of traditional and for-profit institutions in delivering educational opportunities to cohorts of older and underrepresented students for whom on-campus learning presents otherwise

U.S. Navy  Image:   090714-N-4995K-021.jpg

Seaman Terrence Oliver aboard USS Ronald Reagan

insurmountable challenges because of life/work schedules or distance. Defenders of classroom-based learning, albeit with technological enhancements, often come off as 21st-century Luddites who cravenly resist threats to their lifestyle. When questions about whether online learning saves money for institutions and students are added to the discussion, you have a witch’s brew of complicated issues. 

Although I spent my entire teaching career in a classroom setting, I am no Luddite. I have taught in “smart” classrooms, complete with internet and video hookups and have utilized course management systems to generate student interaction, provide feedback electronically on student papers, and evaluate student performance. I agree with those who say that online learning is here to stay and that higher education must adopt the most effective methods of instruction for students with different learning challenges and objectives. Nevertheless, I perceive a disturbing trend toward an uncritical acceptance of online learning as a panacea for all that ails higher education. With education as key to job creation and career enhancement, we are rushing to promote education through technology without bothering to reflect on what we might be losing.

The Granularization of Knowledge

Online instruction depends upon the technological ability to deliver units of information efficiently. Simply put, this means that information—words, sentences, paragraphs, longer texts, images, video  or audio clips, etc.—must be broken down into smaller bits or “granules” that can be stored, identified, recalled, combined, and delivered in accessible form to an end user. These information units, called learning objects, are managed by rather complicated knowledge management systems.

An individual student’s acquisition and practice in using information granules can be self-paced and asynchronous. That is, obtaining information and using it to perform specific tasks no longer requires students to be physically present with others in the same room at the same time. Using contemporary communications technology,  students can collaborate in small groups or interact with their instructor/facilitator when necessary. Evaluation of performance can compel students to review material again or to move ahead to the next level or module; progress occurs according to each student’s ability to demonstrate mastery of information and tasks.

This ability of online instruction to promote such educational objectives for large numbers of students in a way that requires intervention by an instructor only when needed makes it increasingly attractive for students and institutions alike. Questions of financial cost and of personnel (who will be the instructors and how will they be trained?) aside, online instruction is destined to become an enduring component of higher learning. So what’s missing?

Education for Judgment

As worthy as they are, the above goals of higher education are insufficient for individuals and for society as a whole. Beyond technical mastery, both society and individuals require utilization of informed, critical judgment. In truth, mastering techniques, in the absence of judgment or the ability to take all relevant factors of a total situation into account, can be dangerous. Identifying and assessing priorities within a socially viable ethical perspective, and doing so in an informed, self-critical manner, is vital to the common good. Discerning with a patient whether a specific course of treatment is desirable, for example, is as important as possessing the technical skill to administer that treatment.

But how do we learn judgment? The short answer entails placing ourselves in social situations in which our conclusions or opinions are questioned and in which we must respond with awareness of the total environment. In other words, we learn judgment by interacting with and responding to others and, especially, by attending to the example of others whose judgment we have come to respect. Traditionally, college students have done that in a classroom, and the classroom remains the safest, structured environment in which to learn judgment.

Why Go to Class?

For all its marvels, communications technology cannot duplicate entirely the sort of interaction that occurs in a classroom face-to-face. Videoconferencing comes close, but even that is not exactly equivalent to persons being in the same room together. Like other primates, humans have evolved to be especially attentive to the reactions of others as expressed in minute changes in facial expression, bodily attitude, tone of voice, and to the response of a group as a social whole. And in a classroom, instructors and students alike are influenced and shaped by the challenging and often surprising responses of others.

See, for example, how a master teacher, Prof. Michael Sandel of Harvard, interacts with a very large class on justice:

Notice that some students change their minds in response to the laughter or groans of others in the room and that Prof. Sandel also adjusts his response to what is happening. As he negotiates his use of information in response to the total situation in the room and to the responses of individual students, he models judgment. And his modeling judgment, his playing that role for his students, makes their experience of this class different, ironically, from the experience of those who, like us, watch the video.

Despite all the considerable advantages of online learning, if we abandon classroom learning in most college courses, we will forfeit something very important: we will forfeit the only safe, structured space for learning critical judgment in a controlled setting. Judgment is more than information, and education is more than training. Let’s not shortchange our college students of their right to a complete education.


Here’s an interesting article, “More Face-to-Face, Less Face-to-Screen,” by Sharon Marshall, that supports many of my concerns. Nevertheless, I do think there is a definite benefit of online instruction for students who need flexible scheduling, who must take courses while working or dealing with domestic situations, or who are unable to come to campus. There are also, in my experience, certain benefits from using technology in managing a class and in providing feedback, grades, etc., to students.


5 responses to “The Necessity of Classroom Learning in College

  1. Great post, and I’m enjoying exploring your blog. I liked seeing the huge Harvard classroom and seeing the prof in action, though I have a slightly different take. Yes, we hear from several students, and editing a class down to four minutes means we don’t get a fair sense of how long each student gets to speak. Is it a sentence or two, or do they have the opportunity to go on at length? Certainly we don’t, and can’t, hear from all of the students in such a huge classroom.

    In an online environment, or at least in the online classes I’ve taken, there are usually 30 students or fewer, and written participation in online forums is required and is expected to be substantive. Likewise, profs require thoughtful feedback to our classmates, and usually, discussions continue even over the course of a couple weeks, even as new topics and new discussion forums are introduced. Everyone has a voice. I agree with your thought, “For all its marvels, communications technology cannot duplicate entirely the sort of interaction that occurs in a classroom face-to-face.” But likewise, perhaps face-to-face settings don’t always allow the kind of inclusiveness that online classes allow.

    Your conclusion about “safe, structured spaces for learning critical judgment” brought to mind a conversation I had with someone who follows my blog. This person was in a videoconference class, present in the remote classroom with one or two other students. The instructor was at the primary classroom. The topic of the day was homophobia, including a short film of the history of gay rights. As it happened, one student at the remote classroom began making highly inappropriate homophobic comments, only she did so off-mike, meaning only the remote students were privy to her comments, not the rest of the class (spread around the state) and, significantly, not the instructor. The person who related this to me felt the environment was toxic and even unsafe, and that such a thing could not have happened in a live classroom because the instructor would have facilitated an appropriate discussion about proper discourse in the classroom. This is a rather winded way of agreeing that there are some subjects and some topics that really benefit from or even require the presence of the unbiased professor to steer the conversation in a way where all can learn.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    • Thanks, Colleen, for such a thoughtful comment. I actually agree with your point that the opportunity for feedback and contribution to discussion can be greater online than in a classroom situation. Whenever I facilitated online discussions via chat rooms or email, however, I sometimes found it difficult to stimulate students to participate actively. Simply requiring them to do so didn’t always work very well. Nevertheless, as more students (and instructors) gain experience of online courses, I’m getting the impression that this is changing, that your experience is more the norm. That is good, and I hope that trend continues.

      On a related matter, I’m curious about how instructors who teach exclusively online feel about the sort of feedback they get from students. When I used to be in the same classroom with students face-to-face, I often reacted to non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, postures, etc., so that I could respond quickly to what I could literally see was working or not working. An analogy that illustrates what I mean occurs as actors or comedians “feed off of” audience reactions during live performances. Being a classroom teacher is very similar to being an actor on a theater stage. Teaching online always felt sort of removed for me, perhaps more like acting in a film, and was therefore more difficult. If you know of discussions about this sort of thing, please let me know.

      Thanks for your response. I hope you enjoy other posts as they come along.

  2. I hope you’ll pardon this lengthy comment, William. It looks like we have our own Old School, New School sidebar going here!

    Having just attended my first live class on the UMaine Augusta campus yesterday, I witnessed /experienced the kind of face-to-face interactivity that happens really well in live settings: part presentation, part questioning, part answering of questions. There is the immediate flexibility to change gears and go off on appropriate tangents, then reel it back to the subject at hand, or to let a student have the floor to share what s/he knows with the rest of the class. This is the kind of feedback I think you’re talking about, which has so much to do with those human cues you mention. In online forums, you can have a back-and-forth discussion, and others may join in, but since it is asynchronous, you lose the immediacy. And let’s face it, human gestures, facial expressions, or even those mumbled “ums” and “ers” in a student’s speech can’t really be expressed by digital emoticons! 😉

    My experience of online classes is strictly from the student side of the equation. I think the success of the class depends largely on the instructor, and the same could be said for those who teach face-to-face. Some instructors are extremely committed, posting lively PowerPoint lectures, pointing the way to pertinent online sources like YouTube videos, and providing clear prompts to get the conversation rolling. They are very present in the forums, nudging students to dig deeper if their initial post was too brief. This might be by commenting on a point in the post, and asking a follow-up question, or by introducing a new line of questioning. Fellow students also jump in to do this. In fact, I think an online class is even more successful when there are at least a couple students willing to do this. Again, this is similar to what would be the case in face-to-face classrooms. Engaged instructors and engaged students make for a beneficial learning experience, wherever or however the class takes place.

    Like you, I would also be interested to know how instructors feel about their online teaching experiences, the kind of feedback they get from their students, and their satisfaction with web-based setting. So far I haven’t seen this kind of discussion online, and my conversations on the topic have only been with other students.

    Since starting this blog, I’ve started to see myself as an advocate for online learning. Part of this is because it’s been such a crucial part of my education, and because, after six years of classes, mostly online, I’ve become opinionated about what makes for a successful online class. I see web-based learning a something that will take off in the near future, and I’m excited to be part of the “first wave” of online learners. Yet I still detect this idea that online classes are considered “less than” their live counterparts, and I’d like to see that sensibility change. I think of live and online classes as parallel, equally valuable, learning environments, but I acknowledge that each kind of class does some things better than the other.

    I also think that colleges and instructors need to continue to innovate, to keep pushing themselves to develop online courses that are dynamic and that use the available technology to the fullest. We don’t need to try to duplicate the live classroom, adapting that model for online forums. We need to rethink what online learning is and can be.

  3. Pingback: Connections: On the Web, In the Classroom | Going the Distance…Three Credits at a Time

  4. Pingback: Online Learning and Online Teaching | Going the Distance…Three Credits at a Time

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