Distance education: It’s a long way from real education

Education has as much to do with communicating a style of life we share with others as it does the communication of bare “information.”

(Image: Nathan Dumlao | Unsplash.com)

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.

Intellectual development

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.

1. Remembering
2. Understanding
3. Applying
4. Analyzing
5. Synthesizing
6. Evaluating

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.

Dubious goals

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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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 38 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is a full professor of Theology at a Catholic, liberal arts university. His book Reading the Sermons of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is available from Emmaus Press. And his next book, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture at Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary will be available from Cambridge University Press in the fall.

17 Comments

  1. Lot in this article. Right now everyone is talking how technology (e.g. ZOOM) is replacing direct human contact from education to the workplace. I think in the end, hopefully, there will be an reflection and adjustment that the person to person contact, interaction is important. I don’t think living in an episode of Star Treck series will last. Another point in education, in my case my education was built on solid teachers, not a disconnected ZOOMed on line Power Point presentation. At Junior College, now called Community College, where I started I learned and was very much enfluenced by deligent techers in Economics (Mr. Dakin), Chemistry, and Mathematics. Later going to University my education was greatly benefited by Professors Kripilani, Sichel and others. Each taught in there own style, in many cases not particularily outstanding, yet they inspired me to learn. I am glad I did not learn in the ZOOM world. Right now I can’t wait to go back to Mass, I am very tired of seeing the Mass on TV, the sacredness is just not there, just too disconnected. Will add I miss going out for lunch at a restuarant, even though I won’t know most of the people there I will just be gald to see them. Can’t wait for this Star Treck episode to end.

  2. Well, I think there’s an appropriate place for both online & in-person teaching.
    Really excellent professors are best experienced face to face, but there’s a host of mediocre stuff you encounter in school that could be replaced with quality online teaching/lectures. And that’s much more relevant for primary & high school education.
    I have nothing against the 19th century, I attended a one room schoolhouse which was outstanding. But we’re still operating schools like it was 1890 again. Technology can’t replace the experience of good, inspired, hands-on teachers but it can for sure replace the worst teachers & give students in disadvantaged schools better & wider options.

  3. There are an extreme number of tenured or tenure-track professors who are terrible teachers because they are more interested in research than teaching, know they can’t be fired for incompetence, are too lazy to keep up with the times, etc. On the other hand, there are as many extremely talented and good teachers who are not tenured or tracked, dedicated to actually teaching. Be careful of this bogus advice.

  4. The author replies.

    To summarize (please note the spelling): 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.”

    There. That’s the summary. It is also the first line of the article. If you want to know why it is even worse — not just in my opinion, but according to decades of highly respected and widely accepted educational theory — read the article. It will provide two resources that will help you make up your own mind.

    One is Bloom’s Taxonomy, which has been a staple of educational reform for decades. The other is Hubert Dreyfus’s marvelous little book “On the Internet.”

    The article is for parents of children who are being forced into on-line courses to help them understand why there are problems. This isn’t just an opinion piece from a professor who “just doesn’t like” on-line education. There are plenty of on-line sites that traffic in that sort of thing. This is “Catholic World Report.”

    And for heaven’s sake, this isn’t about “moving into the modern world.” If it were, then on-line Mass would be fine too. So if you think that on-line Mass is really lacking a definite “something,” then this goes double for on-line education.

    As for the tenure, tenure-track question, this is another issue entirely. Allow me to agree that there are plenty of superb teachers who are being forced to do adjunct work and plenty of tenured professors who are terrible teachers. This has much to do with the prestige-mongering I discussed in the final two paragraphs. You want a tenured or tenure-track professor not because adjuncts are not as good — mostly, they are every bit as good — but because institutions who use adjuncts are abusing them. They are merely “saving money” by paying adjuncts 2000 dollars to teach a course for which you are paying thousands and thousands to the university. But as I said, that’s another issue. In this context, my point was rather that parents should pay attention to who is actually dealing with their son or daughter, not who made the videos. I have colleagues who are making videos but who will NOT be teaching the course. Some graduate student will be dealing with the actual students.

    Can videos teach some things? Yes. Can you learn some things from well-done podcasts? Sure. Can you learn anything more than basic information or simple “how-to” things from a video? My argument, backed up by decades — no, centuries — of thinking about education, is no. For more on this, read Mortimer Adler’s “Paidea Proposal.” Then read Newman’s “Idea of a University.” Then read any of the early dialogues of Plato. To summarize: Real education requires real person-to-person, heart-to-heart interactions. That’s the argument. Disagree with that if you like.

    • Dr. Smith,
      Thank you for your comments.
      I try not to note other folks spelling in comment boxes. I’ve made numerous typos myself and without an edit feature there’s no way to go back and fix it once posted. It’s been a good exercise in humility.
      🙂

      I probably didn’t do a great job expressing my thoughts earlier. I love 19th Century education and have experienced something very close to it, but with technology we have so many resources that can be utilized to expand that. It’s not just one model or the other, it can be both.

    • It looks to me that you are confirming that picking a teacher for one’s children is based more on the ability of the instructor, not whether he/she is tenured or not. It’s the quality of the instructor that counts, and I would contend checking a professor’s reviews trumps their credentials. Whether a school is not paying equitably has no bearing. And you well know tenured and -tracked professors widely use others, including graduate students, to shoulder the load in most classes. I know many adjunct professors who outshine tenured professors in the classroom. As you are well aware, this is a complex issue, which should probably not have been associated with this discussion, but still bears the label of bogus.

  5. Maybe this is more an essay on what good teaching is. But I have to tell you, if it’s a choice between a caring, interested teacher who despises my values of a male/female married family, Church and decentralized social structure vs online learning from an orthodox Catholic distance learning company, which way do think I’m going to go? These are the real choices parents face. It’s not about online learning from a caring orthodox teacher vs in person learning from the same person. Please don’t make it harder on us who live and breathe these choices by creating doubt about directions we have had to choose. In fact I’m quite hopeful that many, many more folks will see that homeschooling at all levels is possible and will get out of the awful schools that burden America now.
    One other thing you left out is the cost factor. I wont belabor it but are you kidding – the cost of a small liberal arts college vs online learning?
    Maybe someday we can get back to the vision you or present, but until then, online learning is a wonderful opportunity and it keeps getting better. Please don’t quash it.

  6. The author replies again:

    I am president of the International Catholic University, which hosts a series of on-line learning opportunities by some of the best Catholic professors in the United States. Check out our web site at icucourses.com.

    Am I a fan of the distance education work done by my friend Chris Blum and his colleagues at the Augustine Institute? Absolutely. I have been involved in Catholic distance education in a dozen different ways. Much of it was a terrible scam. Do I think it can do some things well? Sure. Can it do what any good parent wants done with and for their son or daughter in an undergraduate program? No. Sorry. Not possible.

    I haven’t the ability or the influence to “quash” anything. But parents need to know what they undoubtedly already suspect: namely, that “distance education” is not real education. Your children deserve better. Parents should choose a real education at a real school. Stop paying for overpriced institutions selling “prestige” and a “cool college experience.” Choose a school based on real educational value. That means face-to-face teaching in the classroom with a real teacher who knows his or her stuff. Can you get catechism from a video? Sure. You can also just read the catechism. Can a student become educated in theology, literature, or chemistry by watching a video? No

    Assuming students are taking five courses per semester (a standard load), classes of fifteen students, and faculty who teach 6 classes per year, to pay the salary and benefits of the faculty members would mean a tuition of ten thousand dollars per year. Are students paying that? No. Where is all that extra money going? You would need to ask an administrator. Those details are hidden from faculty members.

    When I try to interest institutions in the courses done by the International Catholic University — courses from legendary Catholic educators such as Ralph McInerny, Tom Hibbs (now president of the University of Dallas), Fr. William Wallace, and Fr. Benedict Ashley — I have been stone-walled repeatedly. Why? Answer: They want to make their own lousier courses because they know they can’t really “monetize” the courses from the ICU. If anyone can get those courses for next-to-nothing, why would they pay a college thousands of dollars for the same course where the “chat room” is monitored by a graduate student? They wouldn’t. You can take the lecture out of the classroom, but you will need a first-rate educator to engage the students interactively. Most college and university distance education is about money, not about quality education.

    • There is a lot to be said for college professors or any teachers who enjoys teaching and engages the students in a classroom envoronment. One example I keenly remember Professor T. (forgot the spelling so just using the initial) who taught upper level courses on Statistics, Forecasting etc. The in person classroom experience resulted in an indepth understanding that would be hard to gain from a video.

  7. There are subjects which can be equally well mastered using a computer coupled with distance learning and their are others which need the classroom. When properly used, technology is a boom. However I have been in classrooms where a teacher is present, but the students are learning using their computers and complain if they are required to use the library. Educational costs have gotten out of hand. It is past time to reexamine not only how we learn and teach, but also the what is being taught. Parents need to be brought back into the education of their children and stop leaving it in the hands of the government. I know more than one professor who needs to be held accountable for what they have taught and not what means was used to teach.

  8. Many people will speak of how they were profoundly influenced in important ways by one or more live teachers they had, in many cases because of personal involvement. The difference here is also one of mere teaching versus mentoring. No one can mentor online. To mentor, one must take a personal interest in the person being mentored. And Dr. Smith’s point about eye contact is invaluable– which is why, despite making a living off technology, I almost never have had video chats with my friends even though I am quite capable of setting up such things. I’d much rather drive across the country to visit a friend in person for even a few hours than to piddle away time in video chats or Zoom meetings.

  9. I wholeheartedly agree! The student-teacher interaction is irreplaceable at any level. I beg to differ, however, with regard to the efficacy and contribution of part time/non-tenured faculty. I taught for thirty years as non-tenured faculty at a major university, I did so because my ‘gift’ was for teaching, for interaction with students, for communicating to them the love of my particular field, for inspiring them to go beyond what I was teaching and discover the joy of learning and growing. Particularly at the U1 and U2 level, an enthusiastic, skilled and empathetic ‘part timer’ or non-tenured teacher can be an effective and positive influence in the students’ oveall development .

  10. The author writes: “Every good teacher knows that he learns as much or more from the students as the students learn from him.”

    LOL. Any teacher who learns as much or more from the students is not worthy of being a teacher who has the responsibility to impart more knowledge to students than what is gained in return. While the teacher can learn some things from students, the best teachers make it a point to always learn more and be more informed than their students (with the extremely rare exception of the “one-in-a-million” student who is gifted and just as knowledgeable or even more so than the teacher) to merit the honor of being a teacher and not just a co-learner.

  11. The author is absolutely correct. My granddaughter was enrolled in a high quality private school with many of her peers, all in the upper 25% IQ range and most suffered greatly during the COVID19 period. The lack of reciprocal interaction and limited discussion affected all the students adversely to varying degrees. Let us hope there is time for some better preparation for the next crisis.

  12. For college teachers or teachers, there’s a lot to be said that loves teaching and engages students in a classroom. I remember Professor T for one case. who teaches top-level statistics classes, forecasts, etc.DistanceLearning
    knowledge of the individual classroom contributed to an insight that would be impossible to learn from a recording.

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