There be dragons!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Online Thoughts

I believe online classes will be the future - but I'm of two minds whether that is a good thing or not. It seems an inevitable thing, just as billboards seemed an inevitable decoration of the landscape when highways were built and television became an inevitable deity in the home once it was made affordable.

My first attitude toward online classes consists of a rosy future of people learning all sorts of things from a distance and employing technology to make a brighter, more interested, more engaged populace. Online classes can prove a very meaningful tool to many people in the educational world and as such they'll be a force to be reckoned with in the near future. This is my first, hopeful, Gene Roddenberry Mind, and as others have articulated this positive side so well I will refrain from elaborating on it and offer another vision.

Then there's the other side of my mind which I'll call The Skynet Mind. The Skynet Mind still harbors serious objections to online learning which I'll try to sum up here in four points.

The Financial objection
I am becoming increasingly convinced that money and good education can't coincide. As soon as big money is inserted into education those who pay the piper start calling the tune; they determine what education is and normally their vision clashes with an authentic liberal arts vision (and yes, there are other forms of education besides the liberal arts vision, but see objection four below). Online classes offer cheaper and easier to access classes, which is good, but there are many people in the tech world and online classes world whose financial future is wrapped up in the success of online classes. As Gene V. Glass says in his recent article "The Realities of K-12 Virtual Education" online schools run a risk of conflict of interest because they "generally evidence new relationships between commercial entities and government and public agencies." Consequently praise of online classes seems to abound and requiring of online classes is already gaining a foothold in the popular imagination (witness recent events in Idaho). The counter to this is that online classes cater to what the customer wants; but in education the "customer" frequently doesn't know what they want until it is given them and they frequently don't want the hard work and discipline that brings about real knowledge. Consulting the "clientele" isn't necessarily a desired answer to the financial question. The success of online classes involves a great deal of money and it will see "success" as a product given to a clientele, it will offer cheaper easier to access product, it will be well financed with a lower overhead; but at what expense not counted in coins?

Time Leech objection
All technology seems to have the danger of becoming a time leech. The time in a traditional brick and mortar, however loathsome to the drowsy schoolboy, is a limited time and focused during the year. Online classes have tried to cater to the schedules of their clientele - but b/c of their involvement in technology they are part of the time suck which modern technology produces in people, taking them away from life in the world; learning sports, how to play an instrument, social interaction, and the thousand and one other things that could be done rather than sit in front of a screen. Traditional education used to run counter to such time leech b/c it forced students to focus for a limited time on something organic, conversation, thought, interaction, scanning of a text, writing, or exercising certain skills. Online classes b/c of their involvement in technology play into the ease of technology as an extension of the nervous system - an ease which gives the illusion of divinity at the expense of the traditional focus of education which was to know ourselves as mortals doomed to die.

The Entertaining Enterprise objection
As mentioned above traditional classes used to not focus on entertaining students; it's a recent trend (and perhaps not entirely untoward) to make teaching entertaining. Used to be that the dry, emotionless world of rational thought was emphasized in the consideration of ideas and to bring young people into the discipline of that world was crucial to the educational enterprise. "Sit down, be quiet, raise your hand" all were directives employed to train young people in self-governance, detachment, and social interaction, the ultimate goal being to produce adults able to operate as rational citizens capable of following the most complex arguments. With the rise of entertainment in education such training has diminished - classes might have more awake and energetic students, but they also have fewer students able to follow complex arguments and ideas; that slow, deliberate scanning of a text or conversation for meaning. This phenomenon seems to have increased in our digital age with the plethora of entertainment, electronics, and distractions; all of which seem to have detracted not only from self-discipline and ability to focus but have also, as Postman points out in his works "Amusing Ourselves to Death" and "Technopoly", leveled the previously accepted heirarchy of goods until all are as equally important and equally pointless and added a flippancy to the contemplation of issues and images traditionally held to be sacrosanct. Online classes, by their nature as part of the digital world, contribute to such a lack of seriousness. The objection will be that there can be online classes that are serious and demand work, but that misses the point; it isn't the content here but the means by which. No online class, no matter how good intentioned or well constructed, can offer a mode of learning as well as a content that runs contrary to the general flippancy and entertaining ourselves to death that seems ubiquitous in our current digital age.

Purpose or point of education objection (methodology is pedagogy)
There was a Cistercian teacher I once read of, a teacher, who when asked what they did in teaching boys in their prep school responded "We are preparing them to die." I thought that was well put. It is the same definition which Plato attributed to philosophy in the ancient world as a "preparation for death" and seems to suit the telos of education in its highest form, I think. When we speak of "education" it is used so broadly that the meaning is quite nebulous. One can take classes in auto-mechanics, in horseback riding, in haberdashery and in helium ballooning. One can be "educated" in cake baking, or in cobbling, in book-keeping or in elocution. All these trades are noble and worthwhile, most offer a good source of monetary income once completed. But there is another form of education which hearkens back to the root etymology of the word itself - to lead out (e-ducere). Pardon my pedantic prose here, but when we lead out we are, the assumption is, leading out from the darkness of ignorance into the light of truth; one didn't know how to bake biscuits, one learns. But the classical vision of education saw such trades as being very different from the type of learning in which one is lead from the darkness of not knowing who they are, what their purpose was, how they were to control themselves, how they were to inherit culture, how they were to live into the light of being an adult. It may sound idealistic, but I still hold this to be the paragon of Education, the purpose of which makes every other trade and skill have meaning and without which there is only the daily monotony of existence and the attempt to acquire more of a muchness. When we face death all our belongings and marketable skills cease to have importance and only the vision is left. For education in trades, skills, immediate commodity of knowledge online classes will work wonders. I will learn German, I will discover how to change a tire, I will excel at accounting through taking an online class. But by its very nature online classes cannot offer the human interaction, the control of time and space, the mental focus necessary, or the appreciation of a heirarchy of understanding all of which are vital to the growth spoken about when referring to authentic education. How we teach, the methodology, is as important as the content; methodology is pedagogy, and in teaching online it simply doesn't seem possible to offer the immediate response, the give and take of conversation, the proposal of ideas, the quiet, unattractive focus on words, the self-control and social mannerisms, the valuing of certain texts or ideas over others, or the role modeling offered to students by daily exposure to a certain teacher. Consequently, though online classes may be an excellent venue for certain types of trade and skills they will fail when it comes to authentic education.

I am no luddite, though even they had a legitimate beef, nor am I unwilling to attempt teaching online classes, but I am also no zealot. If online classes are pushed to be the replacement of an already ailing educational system, the panacea for the educational calamity that is our current era, we will lose something tremendous indeed.

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