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
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.
- Path to Learning: In Class or Online? (nytimes.com)
- How Online Learning Compares to Traditional . . . Continuing the Debate (drdianehamilton.wordpress.com)
- Online Education: Better Than Traditional School? (distance-education.org)