Just want to give a quick shout out to Mark Edmunson for his op-ed in yesterday's NYT: "The Trouble with Online Education." With all the recent foofaraw recently about on-line courses and MOOCs, various people at various places (most notably the idiot Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia) are fretting about the end of colleges, and especially liberal arts colleges, as we know them. I don't share these concerns. Of course, there are serious problems with higher education in the US, and the rise of on-line courses does pose a certain challenge. But, at the end of the day, there will always be a place for education via direct human contact between teachers and students.
Edmunson gets this rather clearly:
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.
He goes on to mention an ancient Greek thinker - "Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates." - a fairly standard move. We could add to that Confucius, who similarly believed in the necessity of direct interaction in education. Here's this from The Analects:
The Master said: "Out walking with two companions, I'm sure to be in my teacher's company. The good in one I adopt in myself; the bad in the other I change in myself. (7.22)
We learn best when in interaction with others, not we we sit, solitary and passive, gazing at a screen. And a certain passion and commitment is also necessary (which I will admist is often lacking in the 18-22 year old cohort):
The Master said: "Study as if you'll never know enough, as if you're afraid of losing it all. (8.17)
That passion might be carried over to online learning. But I still think Edmunson is right when he argues:
...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.
The ideal of the university, of which the liberal arts college is a miniaturization, arose in medieval times, and it has survived the horrors of war, the deprivations of economic depression, and the transformations of culture. But yet it persists. I think we're still safe for a while....