Just a month ago our sleepy college town was rocked by the announcement that the University of Virginia’s president, Teresa Sullivan, was unexpectedly resigning. The intervening weeks saw vigils, rallies and protests and eventually the reinstatement of Sullivan. Conspiracy theories about the business school, wealthy donors and even Sullivan’s weight abounded, but despite the secrecy that cloaked the Board of Visitors’ (UVa’s governing body) actions, one undeniable theme was the desire to move quicker to implementing online courses. Responding to the brouhaha, Jordan Weissman presents a cogent argument about why online courses will not suddenly replace the traditional “brick and mortar” experience. The comments section includes vigorous discussion about the comparative values of both. The comments illuminate the wide range of current philosophies about college and education, and several discuss how introductory college courses could transition from face to face to online formats similar to the Khan Academy curriculum — which consists of online, video-based tutorials and short courses.
I’m not a huge fan of Khan Academy. I recognize its incredible value and what a remarkable resource it is. My problem is that it should be viewed as a tool in our teaching and learning repertoire, but instead it’s positioned as the savior of a broken educational system. Show me the students who feel Khan Academy unlocks their inspiration and stirs their passion for a subject. The most enthusiastic recommendations for Khan Academy are from students using the videos and practice to pass a standardized test in a subject in which they are struggling.
I’m passionate about the word and concept of education. I feel deeply responsible for “leading out” the best qualities of students. The typical format of many online classes is simply a data dump of facts. If that is the purpose of our colleges and universities, then online classes would be completely appropriate. However, if our goal is to create an informed and thinking citizenry (which I am beginning to think is NOT the goal of many of our institutions), it is a mistake to use instructor-led lecture followed by multiple choice standardized tests to assess knowledge acquisition.
It’s certainly possible for face to face instruction to have the same shortcomings as what I’ve ascribed to online learning. However, facilitating and creating quality online curricula is even more challenging than teaching face to face. In the classroom the teacher and students can interact in a synchronous exchange of ideas full of facial and body cues, aiding full discussions. Trying to emulate that online is challenging and time-consuming. When I taught online, I spent a great deal of time writing personalized comments and rebuttals, seeking to engage students and encourage them to revisit their quickly scribed reaction papers. Much of the time was spent developing a personal connection with each student — much easier in the real world with eye contact, a smile or a quick chuckle together. Once that critical relationship of trust was established, my constructive critiques and guidance were much better received. My students got much more out of this than having a series of multiple choice tests, or writing responses that disappeared into the ether, but these kinds of interactions require a small teacher:student ratio, committed teachers, and commiserate pay.
While the Sullivan/UVa turmoil was deeply personal for me, there are broader implications for our educational systems, our cultural institutions and even our society. When Sullivan’s resignation was first announced, “philosophical differences” between her and the Board were cited. Although that justification was decried as insufficient, I believe that no truer words were spoken. I fear that much of the push for online classes is in service of corporate concepts like “efficiency” and “return on investment (ROI)”. I fear a time when education is only valued for quantifiable returns, and contemplation, reflection and the study of the deeper arts of the human existence are abandoned for the sake of memorization of quick facts and software tools. There is no question that there are real economic concerns related to tuition costs and the ability for college graduates to find meaningful, remunerative work, but the economy and money are not the only factors that drive our society. We will inevitably embrace online learning, but we owe it to ourselves to be thoughtful in our implementation and create opportunities beyond rote memorization.