Discussing the relative strengths and weaknesses of education as it occurs on and offline, in and outside of a classroom, is important. Best pedagogical practices have not yet emerged for courses primarily taught online. What opportunities and pitfalls await both on and offline learning environments? Under ideal circumstances, how might we best integrate face-to-face as well as online tools? In non-ideal teaching situations, how can we make the best of the on/offline arrangement handed to us? All of us teaching, and taking, college courses welcome this discussion. What isn’t helpful is condemning a medium of learning, be it face-to-face or via digital technologies, as less real. Some have begun this conversation by disqualifying interaction mediated by digitality (all interaction is, by the way) as less human, less true and less worthy, obscuring the path forward for the vast majority of future students.
This is exactly the problem with the op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times titled, “The Trouble With Online Education.” Far from making a convincing case that online education should trouble us, Mark Edmundson instead makes a case for interactivity. He does this by contrasting brilliant lecturers who can read a room when face-to-face against completely non-interactive online course templates. Sure, the former has advantages over the latter, but is this really the choice faced by universities, professors and students today? Of course not.
Edmundon’s first error is having nostalgia for a fiction past where the Web didn’t exist and professors were always there with the students in the room, face to face, making the lecture an in-the-moment responsive operation, always guided by the changing currents of the classroom. The varying interests and needs of the students were perceived by the professor’s magical “pedagogical sixth sense” (Edmundson’s term) and the speech would morph accordingly like a work of performance art. Beautiful! Unfortunately, as just about anyone who has ever taken a college course ever knows well, a whole bunch of face-to-face lecturers also created very non-interactive courses. Edmundson describes an ideal but presents it as a norm.
Then, Edmundson describes an online course. He describes them as courses finished before they are started; the text is pre-written and video lectures pre-filmed. Online courses are made out to be like freight trains that propel forward upon a pre-determined track, irrespective to the needs of the particular students enrolled. While this actually reminds some of us of the offline-only courses we took in the past, the bigger point is that this is not how online education needs to be done.
The real argument that Edmundson is making, and it is actually a good one, is that there are pedagocial benefits to interactive and responsive learning environments. Where he fails is wrongly assuming that human interactivity is solely the business of the offline and impossible online. This is plainly false.
The easier argument is actually discussing the difficulties of being interactive when teaching face-to-face. For example, sometimes professors are over-worked or uninterested in interacting with students and sometimes the classrooms are too large to be intimate. Building interactivity into online education, on the other hand, is actually less mysterious and less likely to require some magical sixth-sense. Using the digital, and social, technologies that so many of the students and professors already know much about is the obvious start. There is a whole literature being written about how to use discussion boards, wiki’s, blogs, Twitter and other tools when teaching online and offline courses.
What I’d rather conclude on is drawing a more abstract point from this specific discussion. Let’s look closely at the rhetoric Edmundson uses to develop his argument disqualifying online education:
in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely. [emphases added]
Straight out of the link-grabbing and substance-lacking playbook of Sherry Turkle or Steven Marche, Edmundson ends with the argument that the Internet is making us lonely. This is an argumentative strategy that plays well, generates lots of page-views and comments, and is thoroughly unsubstantiated by research. And like all the other popular pieces claiming the Internet is making us lonely, the argumentative strategy is to contrast the Internet with the “real.”
This is my biggest complaint about tech-writing: the understanding of that which is mediated by digital information is somehow not real. The offline is described as human, filled with “joy” and “community” and all the intangibles related to our messy IRL existence. Conversely, the online is “virtual,” “sterile” and apparently comprised of bored and frowning teenagers, as the article’s lead illustration seems to suggest. This understanding of a “real” world separate from this other “virtual” world is popular and, I think, fundamentally wrongheaded.
I’ve previously coined the phrase “digital dualism” to describe false separation of the on and offline, and, in this case, it is via this dualism that Edmundson justifies his claim that interactivity can only happen offline. The logic is that offline is a space pregnant with human connection, the online is a space where students are met with algorithms and robots; without human connection there can be no true interactivity. I recently described this faulty logic “The IRL Fetish” (IRL = “in real life”), to mistake real human interaction as only existing “IRL” and missing the degree to which digital tools do not whisk us to some new virtual space but are rather part of our one, lived, augmented, human reality. To fetishize the offline as the sole domain of humanity is to obscure the fact that our digital tools are also comprised of real people, with real histories, politics, standpoints, ideas and potential. That which happens online is real, it is human; online education does not preclude real connection, community or interactivity.
What are the consequences of fetishizing offline education? Who benefits from disqualifying all education that does not happen purely face-to-face as less “real”? What does that view say of the many teachers and students making use of some combination of on and offline learning tools? Is that pedagogy less real? Are the student’s insights less real? Let’s not begin this by belittling learning communities that, to some degree, use or don’t use digital tools. Let’s drop this false binary between the online and offline and recognize that, instead, they are both real. From here we can start the more important discussion of how to teach, both on and offline, in our ever changing real world.