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!


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