The current infatuation with the application of new technologies to education, in essence, replacing teachers in carne e ossa with pixels and bytes and arguably turning students into consumers of data rather than seekers of knowledge, has all the features of a revolution. Much like the ideological fanatics who led the communist revolutions of the past century, the cheerleaders of online education promise free or low-cost access to intellectual utopia for all. As Nathan Harden argued in these pages (January/February 2013), technology is indeed a great equalizer, but mainly in the sense of being a leveler, leaving a path of destruction wherever it passes. Harden and others, invoking Schumpeter, would call that destruction creative. I doubt it. Tacitus is rather the source to invoke: They create a desolation and call it education.
“Online education” is to education what pornography is to marriage. It destroys stable relationships, vitiates the ability to argue and reason, splits people apart and ultimately leaves no intellectual offspring. It is, in short, liable to be thoughtless, asocial and sterile.
Thinking, like marital love, takes time and patience. Online sources are marvelous if you want to learn how to install a garbage disposal or to satisfy the urge to watch old episodes of Firing Line; they ease access to snippets of information and can scratch every itch of curiosity. As a fact-checking source they will, if used with care, save you time better spent on, say, reading. And the democratization of access to higher learning will surely allow some people otherwise unable to tap into treasuries of human knowledge to get a taste for it, and who knows how many hearts and minds that might elevate to society’s general benefit? Still, you will never approximate a good plumber or William F. Buckley simply by staring at a screen. Coursera, edX or Udacity may be able to open data feeds at the click of a mouse, but they cannot teach a person how to think or argue or appreciate. For that, you have to look up from the screen.
Indeed, interacting face-to-face with fellow students and a professor is challenging. It requires time, discipline and discomfort, if it is done right. You will not cultivate the capacity to develop cogent arguments by consuming even thousands of ten-minute canned “modules” all by your lonesome.
Why not? Because to think you must be challenged. A good book, preferably in that old format that you can hold, touch and smell, can spur thought. (The digital texts are certainly easier to access but also encourage skimming. As Andrew Piper wrote, instead of slowly turning a page, our “hands become brooms, sweeping away the alphabetic dust before us.”1) A dialogue, in the form of a good lecture or seminar, also supplies the needed challenge. Clicking a mouse? I don’t think so.
Any seminar, indeed every important conversation, is like a duel: It consists of constant sparring, of testing the other’s positions and strengths, often resulting in scarring and sometimes the elation of mutual victory. It is not meant to be pleasant. Done properly, it is not possible for it to be solipsistic. Pornography tempts because it is voyeurism in which nobody can talk back to you; real human beings can and invariably will. They will speak and argue; they will have preferences and points of view different from your own that you must consider and answer if you want to remain in their company.
I have to admit that I enjoy seeing my students squirm. I like the awkward silences of a seminar and the discomfort provoked by a poorly formulated thought (mine as well as theirs). I like to watch for the sudden illumination that crosses the face of a student who has had a glimpse of a genuine argument, or the dark clouds of frustration of another who cannot grasp it. Personal contact—the eye contact, the tone of voice, even the silences—is indispensable to a useful argument. That is why real argument is also difficult. In my experience students complain about a grade only via email; in person, they want to know what they misunderstood and how to do better. Virtual contact is cheap and easy, emboldening self-centeredness. Real, face-to-face contact is hard, but it nourishes intersubjectivity, building a communio personarum rather than a purely transactional meeting of individuals.
he purpose of education thus transcends whatever we happen to be learning at the moment. It forces both professors and students to direct their gazes outward, to others. It shapes young personalities in their advancement toward a mature social life. It also teaches students how to become teachers themselves—something most of us will do in our own lives, if only as a parent. By replacing real people with a “virtual community” we are creating social deserts. As a society, do we really want to encourage the development of solitary pseudo-Protean individuals? Just as pornography is not a good preparation for marriage, so online education, shorn of interpersonal encounters, is a poor preparation for society.
There are certainly risks in real, face-to-face education. Classes can be unruly, the professor a lunatic or a crank, the subject esoteric or irrelevant. Online programs promise to eradicate these dangers. You can take the lessons in doses and at times of your choosing. Teachers will be screened for clarity and their ability to entertain. And perhaps best of all, there will be a huge array of subjects offered at little or no cost. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.
Even were the promises realistic, they could only be achieved at the expense of the possibility of that one great encounter. Do you remember all of your university or high school classes? Not likely, but you probably do remember that one teacher, those ten spine-tingling minutes of a lecture that opened a new intellectual vista, or that one embarrassingly painful exchange that strengthened your reasoning capacities forever. Online education is likely to leave you with a degree but no memories, no scars, no undiscovered country to explore. It is a resumé-building tool, not a doorway to an intelligent life.
From the other side of the podium, university administrators are peddling the digitization of education for fiscal reasons. It may be an effective strategy for cutting costs or even for profit-making: It can increase exponentially the number of consumers (students are now often called “clients”) and thus the university’s income. Georgia Tech’s new master’s degree in computer science, based on massive, open online courses (MOOCs) is but the first of its kind, to be followed by many others. But do not believe the hucksters if they say these programs will improve learning. Those who say that education can be made easier, more pleasant and fun, and available entirely on demand, are selling you oceanfront property in Oklahoma. They are telling you in effect that pornography is just as good as marriage.
The devotees of online education may succeed in their frenetic push to separate teachers and students through a screen and fiber optic cables. In our society, where money sweeps all before it, and where consumption trumps genuine flourishing, where the short term flips all that really matters over the shoulder, it is hard to see how they could fail. (When will MOOC fare introduce commercials? That can’t be long in coming.)
Regardless, I will remain in the classroom, ready to trouble students over Pericles’ Funeral Oration, the bloody end of Remirro D’Orco, and the debatable virtues of seapower. I will remain there as long as anyone shows up. I hope they keep showing up.
1Piper, “Out of Touch”, Slate, November 15, 2012.