“AH, you’re a professor. You must learn so much from your students.”
This line, which I’ve heard in various forms, always makes me cringe. Do people think that lawyers learn a lot about the law from their clients? That patients teach doctors much of what they know about medicine?
This is an exceedingly strange way of beginning an essay–purportedly underwritten by a humanist perspective–advocating for face-to-face education in the classroom. I’m afraid Mark Edmundson’s effort (‘The Trouble With Online Education,’ New York Times, July 19, 2012) in this direction does not get much better from there on.
Edmundson commits the classic fallacy of condemning Option A (online education) in comparison to Option B (face-to-face classroom instruction) by exclusively comparing the worst of A to the best of B. When face-to-face education goes well, it can approach the lyrical heights its enthusiasts are fond of pointing out. But often it does not. I am quite fond of recounting the story of the computer science professor who, in one of my first graduate school classes, liked to pay attention to his Chinese and Indian graduate students by mimicking their accents when they spoke up and asked questions. Perhaps those students would have preferred the online version of his class? A pathological case, you say. But the interactional idiosyncrasies of teachers are burdens that face-to-face classroom education has to bear; they are not bugs, they are features, ones that can sometimes work against a student and the pedagogical process.
Examples like these can be multiplied by the dozen: rude, inattentive, unprepared, disorganized teachers are all possible in the classroom (as are rude, unprepared, inattentive, disorganized students). Shall we compare the pedagogical disasters that follow with what happens when the well-prepared online lecture-in video or text form–suitably annotated with follow-up material, is worked through by the diligent, motivated online student? Edmundson speaks of the necessity of dialogue. Is a dialogue present in the pathological cases I point out? Is it absent in the online case I indicate? Does the teacher have to be physically present to enter into a dialogue with the student? Is no dialogue possible in online forums associated with a class? It would be strange if not, given the amount of ‘conversation’ that takes place in internet meeting spaces.
Online education is often as bad as its detractors make it out to be. But sometimes it can work well, meeting educational objectives for a particular student population in a way that traditional classroom education cannot. As my examples above should make clear, in saying this, I am not just pointing out the obvious logistical advantage demonstrated by online efforts such as those of Udacity and the Khan Academy: that educational materials can be made available to a large demographic that benefits from them. This is not insignificant; it is quite possible that the scaling options available in online education may be the only way to enable some forms of specialized education to a large number of students.
Edmundson asks in a tone of anticipatory triumphalism:
But can online education ever be education of the very best sort?
Perhaps not. But is the education offered in classrooms always ‘education of the very best sort’? If the answer to that is ‘no,’ then on what grounds does Edmundson refuse even a cursory examination of the possibilities of online education?