Online Learning: The Future of Higher Education?

In an ongoing discussion on one of my favorite listservs (Dave Farber’s Interesting People list), folks have been sharing thoughts about online learning as a potential substitute for traditional higher education. As is often the case, this was a response to media coverage that confronts the same question (e.g., College Crackup and the Online Future).

If the Harvards and the MITs of the world put their courses online as free advertising—which they are doing—and if even middle-of-the-pack colleges are heading that way, what does this mean? Can we put all the world’s knowledge online for free, then let students study it on their own? Does this leave colleges as mere credentialing institutions? Aren’t colleges failing to challenge students these days anyway?

I think online education is not a good substitute for in-person education, and I shared my reasoning with the list. Thought I’d also share it here:

One problem with this discussion is that it assumes a very undeveloped and incomplete pedagogy—namely, it assumes that education is about pouring knowledge into students’ heads. If that were correct, then yes, the top schools could put their content online, and all that would be required of users would be to open their knowledge spouts to receive this information. If the “knowledge spouts” model of learning were correct—if it were effective for disciplined individuals to use publicly available mediated information to displace classroom teaching—public libraries and book stores would have put colleges out of business long before the internet.

Anybody who has taught in the classroom knows better—or, at least, they really should. Like all good communication, good teaching is bi-directional. Yes, bad college instructors just show lots of words on PowerPoint slides and drone on, regardless of the classroom’s reaction (or lack thereof). And yes, there are bad teachers in college classrooms—from your local community college to Harvard, and everywhere in between. But even middling instructors, let alone the truly good ones, demand student participation and react to classroom feedback. Further, there is no substitute for making students think on their feet and contribute to discussions in small groups or with the whole class.

Other parts of the educational experience include informal interaction with faculty and staff between classes (can’t tell you how many big-deal career and education questions I’ve answered in conversations that started with no goal in mind), building social skills and peer groups with fellow students, and hands-on time in labs and other places of experiential learning.

Even though I was a philosophy major, one of my most memorable moments as an undergrad was in Physics II, when the professor had the whole lecture hall stand in a circle, linking pinkies, and then holding hands, so that we could feel electricity run through the whole loop with less and then more flesh connected to our neighbors. We did the pinkies first, and he asked us to hypothesize whether the holding-whole-hands stage would be a weaker or stronger shock. We’d already studied enough electromagnetism to have some basis for our hypothesis, but I was wrong, and the experience taught me a lot about humility before evidence—the very foundation of the scientific method. (I went through a similar process with the philosophical method in Epistemology, but that’s a much slower and less-exciting story.) This lesson just would not have been the same if it had been mediated through a screen.

If one wants to learn a trade or other specific set of information, and if that content is amenable to learning via media such as the internet (or, heaven forbid, books), an online learning environment may be a fine choice. If one has no real opportunity to attend a physical campus because of physical, time, and/or cost constraints, learning online is certainly a better alternative than not learning! But for most students in most subjects, learning online is a pale imitation of face-to-face instruction.

I’m not worried about college becoming irrelevant in the age of the internet any more than my predecessors were worried about it happening in the age of the VCR. I am, however, worried that politicians, the public, and higher ed administrators will be roped in by the promise of efficiency and cost savings. Especially in an era where collective investment in our future is derided as “socialism,” higher education budgets keep being slashed. (This, of course, is the real reason state school tuitions are skyrocketing. Adjusting for inflation, the total money in is basically flat.) In this environment, the “learn at home!” hype that looks so schlocky when peddled by for-profit colleges is starting to sound like the solution to our education woes—in much the same way that utterly ungrounded education “reform” is the solution to K-12 problems that are mostly just symptoms of economic inequality.

P.S. The one point with which I do strongly agree is that students spend far too little time on their work. I’m young enough that, by the time I was an undergrad, the standards had already gotten pretty low. I had to do relatively little work outside class, and frankly, this kind of horrified me. You know what really taught me a lot, though? Participation on the intercollegiate debate team, which has since been cut for funding reasons…

[Edit 1:30 pm: Minor change in title.]

1 thought on “Online Learning: The Future of Higher Education?

  1. Dear Bill,

    I do not agree with your basic premise that online learning is not a good substitute to in-person learning. I am sorry but I find your analysis to be generally regressive. Even a rudimentary online learning tool like a threaded discussion can be used effectively if the instructor so desires. An inter-collegiate debate can be effectively organized and delivered online; in fact I learn a lot from online discussion forums that are well moderated by well-intentioned and motivated instructors. In that context, the good and bad instructors can be based on who understands the medium and uses it effectively for learning delivery. Over and above the content and pedagogy, instructor intent and willingness to deliver targeted instruction are key to a great online classroom experience. In my online learning experience, I find online learning to have more positives than negatives. What I find unfortunate is that, online classrooms do attract sloppy instructors, who have fixed mind-sets, do not understand the medium, and lack the drive to deliver instruction online.


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