Online vs. 'Live' Education: The Real Issues

The weakness of online education, as far as I can tell, is the evaluation of student performance.

E-learning (Fairfax Media/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)
E-learning (Fairfax Media/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

So there’s a lot of enthusiasm for online education. Of the many arguments I’ve seen, these make the most sense: First, online education gives people access to higher education who otherwise wouldn’t have it. It’s perfect for people with real jobs and busy schedules (and so who need to be “in class” whenever they can), people in remote locations, and people who just can’t afford the luxury of the personal “touch.”

Second, online education promises to make professors more productive. One instructor can reach hundreds or thousands of students. And it’s that fact—combined with the lack of unnecessary amenities and, you can hope, a very much reduced administrative infrastructure—that promises to make higher education affordable or at least no longer a ripoff.

Professors of political philosophy, such as the legendary Cliff Orwin, don’t think that they can do their jobs properly online.

But Orwin, for one, concedes a lot to the onliners. He admits that insofar that education is training it can be done online. Anyone who has tried to fix his screwed-up computer knows why. The instructional lesson or video or whatever may not be great, but neither might be the in-class lecture.  You can read the instructions or watch the video time and again, and eventually you figure out what’s going on. You may or may not be able to ask your own “help” questions, but there are typically so many questions with expert answers online that you soon find one that fits your bill.

And I’ve noticed that even a lot of “real” science labs have become interactive computer simulations. They certainly begin to address the criticism that “experimental” courses can’t be online.

When it comes even to history, you can have links to lectures, articles, primary documents, and all that. Sure, it might be more up to the student than usual to put it all together.  But all the trendy educational theories say that we should leave it to the students to make the connections anyway. I have no idea why an online package along those lines wouldn’t be regarded as far superior to a textbook. And, in fact, most textbooks now come with links to online stuff that really tend to make the textbook itself almost superfluous.

The weakness of online education, as far as I can tell, is the evaluation of student performance.  Online multiple-choice exams tend to be lame—either too easy or too boring to really engage or challenge the student. It’s true enough that they’re no worse than in-class exams of that kind.  If a course involves the evaluation of a lot of written work by the student that’s emailed in, there’s the question of whether the student is doing his or her own work. If the work is carefully monitored and meticulously evaluated by the e-instructor, then it’s unlikely that instructor could handle more students than in an old-fashioned class.

I suspect that, for most kinds of courses, all questions concerning online “quality control” have or will have adequate answers. And it’s not like folks these days have that much confidence in “quality control” in the grade-inflated brick-and-mortar colleges.

The fashionable way of addressing the issue of quality—the development of easy-to-measure and so easy-to-assess “competencies”—actually works to the advantage of the onliners. The general drift from excellence to competence makes it easy to say that online is “good enough,” and “good enough” is all we’re going for.

To get into top graduate schools or a really good job, students often really do need to develop a personal or “mentor” relationship with a professor, who can push the student’s distinctive accomplishments in more than an abstract, merely quantitative way to employers and professors. It’s hard to see how that works online. The really entrepreneurial student can sell himself (or herself) in some cases.  But that’s a lot harder to do.

In general, online education demands that students be much more self-motivated than they typically are, and so an honest program would produce many more drop-outs and failures than the brick-and-mortar alternative.  Your slacker kid is unlikely to flourish in online classes (for one thing, there’s a lot of other stuff online), and that’s a big reason to borrow big bucks to get him into a “supportive” academic environment.  It’s not a big reason to send him to State U with the warehouse classes and exceptional nonacademic amenities and opportunities.

Orwin’s fair-and-balanced conclusions include that online education is better than nothing, and even that it seems “good enough” for many or most of the techno-courses and majors to which today’s students are attracted. 

Courses, of course, don’t need to be either completely in-class or online. Fashionable lately has been the “hybrid” model, in which a small part of the class (say a week or two) is spent on campus. That allows for some personal contact with one’s fellow students and one’s instructor and allows evaluation also to be more personal.  As far as I can tell, the hybrid model works very well with highly motivated graduate students. There are other versions of the hybrid model at some undergraduate institutions that include a lot more time in class.

Having made all these concessions to the onliners, we can attend  to what’s true and beautiful to Orwin’s claim that’s what’s often good enough is nowhere near what’s best:

The New York Times of July 19 contained an excellent column by the University of Virginia’s Mark Edmundson. He explained why teaching requires the physical presence of the students. Prof. Edmundson likens good teaching to jazz. It is inherently responsive and improvisational. You revise your presentation as it goes, incorporating the students’ evolving reception of it. In response to their response, as individuals and as a group, you devise new variations on your theme. You don’t address students in the abstract or as some anonymous throng scattered throughout cyberspace. You always teach these students, in this room, at this time.

So it matters to me to know who my students are, to know their faces and names, to see how they dress and what they’re reading. I need to talk to them before and after class and listen to what they’re saying among themselves. Above all, it’s crucial for me to hear their voices as they answer my questions and ask their own, to heed their inflections and mark the expressions on their faces. In my large introductory course, I devote a third of the time to discussion. That’s not just so the students can probe me, but so I can probe them.

It’s equally important to the students that I’m there. They need a real person with whom to engage. Someone to interrogate. Someone to persuade them. Someone to resist. Someone with whom they can identify or refuse to identify. Because education addresses the whole person, it requires a real person to model it. It matters to the students not just to hear what I say but to hear the voice in which I say it – the hesitations as well as the certainties. They need an example of someone who, like them, is learning as he goes along – but just happens to be further along than they are.

Live education is expensive, you say? The best things in life tend to be.

A few comments:

1. The best teaching is like Jazz. It’s all about improvisation. How to combine discipline and spontaneity? One way I know of is to teach from a text, from something written by someone obviously much, much smarter than anyone in the room. There’s no way any particular class could grasp everything meant or implied by the written word. That means what is taught is conditioned by what’s actually noticed and challenged by the readers in the room. 

2. Jazz ain’t shooting the bull.  It’s more disciplined and requires a lot more talent than just playing the score—or sticking to lecture notes. 

3. So the model of teaching is something like the conversation we find in a Platonic dialogue.  But we have a big advantage .  We don’t have to start from scratch. We can have a dialogue on the dialogue. (Almost all great books are sort of implicit dialogues—certainly all novels and most philosophy.)

4. If Orwin is right that the best teaching has to be personal, then classes have to be very small.  It really is true, in one way, that the larger the class, the worse the teaching. You’re talking over some students’ heads, around the heads of others, and being too easy on still others.  You want to avoid “preaching to the converted,” which is why you wouldn’t talk up transhumanism to BIG THINK readers or rail against atheism in a class full of evangelicals. You typically teach against—without being offensive—the dominant tendency in the class, while also allowing students to see what’s true and noble (as far as you can tell) in how they live and what they think. So you really do have to know a lot about your students to teach as well as you can.

5. The smaller the class, the more you can do justice to the brains, backgrounds, and temperaments of the students before you. That means the best class includes no more students than the number of interlocutors in a Platonic dialogue. How much would THAT cost?

6. According to Orwin, the argument for having a real person in a particular place teaching real persons in person depends on the proposition that education is about not only animating but actually educating—or transforming—the whole person. How many classes are about THAT? And how many of us really believe that education should be about THAT these days?

7. Even most onliners would admit that “live education” is better. But it is expensive. Is it worth it?  Maybe it isn’t worth it for every kind of class and for every kind of student.

8. Studying with, say, Orwin might be regarded as a luxury these days, unless you’re very serious about the education of the whole person, unless you’re very serious, I think, about education that has a strong philosophical or at least spiritual dimension. There’s surely a close connection between defending “live” education and defending liberal education.

9. But we can't forget how many liberally educated persons say they were inspired by a particular opinionated, highly personal, talented, and erudite professor. Such transformation or "turning around" happens in classes big and small. You might say the great books themselves can do the inspiring. Who denies they sometimes do? But most of us need someone who makes them "come alive." Such teachers are a luxury in the sense that's there so few of them. If you take liberal education seriously, and you know where one is, it might be worth going into some debt!


A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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