Some people ask me what I think about teaching online. I ask them how they like watching Mass online. “Really, that bad?” they reply. “No, actually, if you can believe it,” I tell them, “it is even worse.”
If nothing else, one thing this lockdown should have taught us is that the promises people made (and are still making) about online “distance education” were always bogus. Yes, we’ve all gone online now, but that was never the question. We always knew that technically, we could deliver class material online. And of course there are some things we already do deliver online. I make a course web site for each class. I post review questions there and links to important readings or interesting web sites. I assign them to watch interesting movies or documentaries I know are available online. I am pleased to use whatever technology will help me teach my students better.
So let’s be clear: Can technology be a boon to education? Certainly. But is online education a good replacement for in-person classes? There isn’t a student left in my university who suffers from that delusion any longer. It isn’t so much that I’m feeling replaced or that my job is in danger. The problem is that my students hate getting their education online and not in-person. And there is no true teacher I know who doesn’t hate it too.
You may have read a host of articles about how priests are missing their congregations. It is at least equally true of teachers. Teachers didn’t choose this vocation to do Zoom meetings or post videos online. We chose teaching because we love and enjoy students.
But there is something more at stake than merely teachers feeling lonely. No, what is at stake is the quality of your son or daughter’s education. And to clarify the point, I will make use of a famous, now-classic discussion of the levels of intellectual development.
In 1956, University of Chicago educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom published his famous hierarchy of six levels of cognitive skill in learning. He did a subsequent study on the “affective domain” — the domain related to the passions and emotions, which are equally important for learning — but we’ll leave that aside for the moment. The six levels in what is often referred to as “Bloom’s Taxonomy” are these.
Now we needn’t linger over whether Prof. Bloom’s specific taxonomy is entirely adequate (it’s not, because even Prof. Bloom realized the affective dimension of education — getting students to care about the material — is missing from the taxonomy) or whether there is a cognitive hierarchy of the sort he envisions, with remembering at the bottom and evaluating at the top. Clearly you can’t apply, analyze, or evaluate information if you can’t remember, recognize, or locate it. And to the argument over whether “creating” is really a more sophisticated cognitive act than, say, “evaluating,” I can only say: maybe, maybe not.
But let’s put all those questions aside for the moment. Consider how many of those key educational goals can be accomplished virtually? Most online education is done asynchronously. The professor “records” something or puts something online, and the students do it when they have time — “at their own pace,” as is sometimes said, or “at their leisure.” One result, not sufficiently discussed, is that many students who start such “distance” courses never finish them. They have no motivation to do the work day-in and day-out. For that, you need teachers and fellow students “connecting” us to the class and holding us accountable.
But another problem is this: You can get a computer to grade multiple choice tests and quizzes, but little more. Can a computer gauge whether a student has properly analyzed evidence or applied principles to specific cases or contrasted one case accurately with an entirely different one? Can a computer argue, assess, defend, estimate, judge, rate, support, value, or evaluate? If not, then it cannot teach a student to do so either, nor can it judge whether a student has done so wisely or not. Does anyone think you can coach a winning high school football team or baseball team virtually, online? Or does excellence in these areas require a coach to be present to watch, correct, and coach, which is something more than merely giving information about the game? To the degree that teaching is more than just another type of “information delivery system,” to the extent that it requires coaching, encouragement, judgment, wisdom, and experience, it cannot be done by an asynchronous “system.”
If you want your son or daughter to think clearly and gain something other than a rudimentary knowledge of an area, he or she will need to be taught by an actual human being and, for the most part, that teaching will need to be done in person.
Why “in person” rather than “online” in a chat room or over a Zoom connection? Well, for much the same reason you would not ask a woman for her hand in marriage or tell a spouse her husband has died in a chat room or on a Zoom channel. Because human beings are fundamentally embodied beings, and tele-presence diminishes elements crucial to the kinds of human communication needed for important human relations.
Indeed, for the best refutation of the pretensions of internet “distance” education I know in a short eminently readable book, allow me to recommend the late Hubert Dreyfus’s On the Internet.
Embodied Education versus Virtual Tele-presence
“At every stage of skill acquisition beyond the first,” argues Dreyfus, “involvement and mattering are essential.” If students don’t care, if the topic does not matter to them (which is usually something they “catch” from the teacher’s love and devotion to the subject), then they will not learn. “Only emotional, involved, embodied human beings can become proficient and expert,” writes Dreyfus. “So, while they are teaching specific skills, teachers must also be incarnating and encouraging involvement.” Education has as much to do with communicating a style of life we share with others as it does the communication of bare “information.”
Another thing lost in “distance’ learning is shared risk. When “the teacher and the class are present together,” writes Dreyfus, “both assume a risk that is not there why they are not interacting — the student risks being called on to demonstrate his knowledge of the subject of the lecture, and the teacher risks being asked a question he cannot answer.” Every good teacher knows that he learns as much or more from the students as the students learn from him. A “good” university, it is said, is one that has teachers and learners, but a “great” university has only learners. Remove the students from the classroom, and you remove one of the most important experiences that makes teaching interesting and helps teachers improve their teaching. They learn which approaches work and which don’t, what questions need to be asked in particular situations, what looks suggests students are puzzled as opposed to merely processing the information.
Dreyfus shares the report of a friend whose observations are borne out by my own experiences and, I imagine, those of thousands of other teachers now forced to try to “educate” online. “When a student asks a question,” reports this professor,
I can see, peripherally, other students nodding their heads in agreement with the question. This would indicate that the student’s question is important to the rest of the class so I will take more care in answering it fully. At the other end of the attention spectrum, I can often see, again, peripherally, when students are bored or sleeping or chatting amongst themselves. This means I may have to pick up the pace of the lecture and try to regain their attention. In teaching students at a distance, I can’t control where the camera points and what it zooms in on, the way I control what attracts my experienced attention when the class is in front of me.
Finally, much of my sense of the immediate presence of the students in a class comes from my ability to make eye contact with them. My experience with … computers is that you cannot make eye contact over a visual channel…. To look into another person’s eyes, I would have to see the eyes of the other person since, to do that, I would have to turn from the camera to the student’s image on the screen. You can look into the camera or look at the screen, but you can’t do both.
I would add to this observation the additional problem of trying to “see” all my students when they are little more than little individual heads in a Brady Bunch set of blocks on a screen. Some students don’t even turn on their video, in which case they are simply a white name on a black screen. Are they even listening behind that black curtain? Have they simply turned on the computer and walked away? Who can tell? There is no way we can, so it is easy to stop caring about them as individuals. And that is just depressing.
“What is also lost, even in an interactive video, is a sense of the context.” says the professor, “In teaching, the context is the mood in the room. In general, mood governs how people make sense of what they are experiencing. Our body is what enables us to be attuned to the mood. If you were a tele-spectator at a party, would you be able to share the mood? Whereas … if you are present at a party, it is hard to resist sharing the elation or depression of the occasion. Likewise, there is always some shared mood in the classroom and it determines what matters — what is experienced as exciting or boring, salient or marginal, relevant or irrelevant. The right mood keeps the students involved by giving them a sense of what is important.”
What is lost is the possibility of seeing my students and controlling my perspective of them — watching, listening, and feeling their mood — so as to get a clear sense of whether they are engaged and grasping the material or not. There are good reasons why nearly every school in the country has gone to Pass/Fail. No one expects students to do as well or learn as much from online education as they do from actual education. And the continual reports of widespread depression among students should be a cold slap in the face to those who think education can simply go online.
So, yes, you can learn to fix your blender or patch a hole in your drywall from a video. But you cannot learn how to deal with all the complexities that arise if your blender is not exactly like the one in the video or if behind that wall you find things the makers of the video did not expect. You can learn to bind books from a video, but you cannot learn to read Plato or Cicero or Jane Austen from a video.
Can you get some “tips” and useful “rules-of-thumb” from videos, illustrated visually? Sure. Can you learn how to apply those rules-of-thumb” to particular situations and figure out when to throw those rules out and start afresh when an entirely unexpected situation occurs? No. For more on this, I recommend Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft or the discussion of practical reasoning in James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State.
You can learn to use a fire hose from a video, but you cannot learn to be a firefighter from a video. You can learn to shoot foul shots from a video, but you cannot learn to be a great basketball player from a video. You can learn to fill a beaker with liquid from a video, but you cannot learn to be a discerning, creative scientist from a video. Nor can you learn how to analyze bad arguments in contemporary politics from a video or how to make good arguments and express them clearly in writing from a video.
Allow me a final caveat. There is no need to write and ask whether “teaching” three hundred students in a large lecture hall is much better. I would argue for various reasons that it is somewhat better, but not much better. Should it be done? In my opinion, no. But once an institution has bloated itself with expensive mid-level managers who do no actual teaching, and with expensive “research professors” who want to do as little teaching as possible because publishing (no matter how empty or useless), or joining the ever-expanding ranks of “the administration,” where salaries are five or six time higher than those of even the highest paid faculty members, are the sole roads to advancement in the modern academy, then institutions will have little or no money left to hire more actual teaching faculty members and little motivation to do so because it will do nothing to increase their “prestige,” which is what their customers seem to want more than anything else and will pay ludicrous amounts of money to get.
So, yes, there are arguments for putting 300 students in a classroom for an “intro” course, just as there are arguments for doing courses “online.” But they all come down to this: once an institution has squandered its heritage and sold its soul for a mess of pottage — once it has lost its vision of what an educational institution is supposed to be for — then the arguments over “second best” and over “what we need to do now,” all based on the presumption that actual person-to-person education is now no more than a mere “ideal,” will lead to all manner of bizarre suggestions, many oddly expensive, even though the purported goal is to save money. All you really need for a first-rate education is first-rate teachers with some interested students and a pile of first-rate books and some basic laboratory equipment. Everything else is increasingly expensive icing on an increasingly less nutritious and insubstantial bit of sponge cake. But no administrator asks the faculty’s views on such matters any more.
How many educational institutions do you imagine are having faculty members make educational videos of dubious quality for their university to market and monetize in the coming months and years for use by their ever-expanding pool of adjunct and part-time faculty? Watch for it. If the advertisement says preeminent Prof. X teaches a course, be sure that Prof. X is the one who shows up when your son or daughter has a question. If not, Prof. X is not teaching the course. He or she is no more “teaching” your son or daughter than the actors in a movie are “informing” them of anything. So, as much as many administrators may be licking their chops, eager to continue down the road of “distance education,” just remember: this desire has everything to do with their budget concerns and nothing whatsoever to do with your convenience or giving a quality education to your son or daughter.
Once the pandemic has subsided and it is safe to go back into the classroom, here would be my advice: Look for a college or university where your son or daughter will be taught in their entry-level classes (lecture, discussion, and labs) by a full-time tenured or tenure-track professor. If you wouldn’t allow your child to be treated by a part-time, “adjunct” physician, I have no idea why you would entrust his or her heart, mind, and soul to a part-time, “adjunct” doctor of theology, philosophy, or science. Colleges and universities won’t reform unless concerned parents force them to do so. Don’t let them sell you a Gremlin, or a video of a happy family driving a Gremlin, when what you’re paying for should be enough to get you an actual BMW.
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