Online vs. 'Live' Education: The Real Issues

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

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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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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