Online courses are not going away. They're cheap (no health insurance and other benefits to pay a professor who, you know, is probably obnoxious anyway; no annoying dorms to supervise, classrooms to equip and maintain; etc.); they're convenient (waiting for your date to show up at Applebee's? fire up the iPhone and finish that segment on the Transcendentalists); they work (well, probably not--but who cares?).
I should confess at the top here that as a teacher who's taught forty-five years in a variety of venues (public middle school, private college, public university, private high school) I am--what?--bothered? angry? hurt?--that an iPad can replace me. (Think of those nineteenth-century artisans who watched in alarm while management wheeled in the machines to replace them.) But I like to think that even if I were not so emotionally invested in these digital changes that are sweeping through all levels of schooling, I would find the prospect alarming. No ... horrifying. To me, it's just another sad example of how we often do things not because we should--but because we can.
- Online advocates assume (believe?) that learning can be reduced to a series of steps--incremental, measurable steps. All the course designer has to do is line those steps up in a sensible sequence, show the pathway to students, collect a fee, and let them start walking--or running--along them. Simple? No, simple-minded. Sure, such a process probably works if you want to learn how to, oh, fillet a fish, but if you want to read Moby-Dick, it's ludicrous.
- Some of education is, of course, what we used to call "content"--information, facts, dates, places. You can hardly call yourself an educated person if you don't know when the Civil War was, where Iraq is, who wrote Hamlet, and so on. Sure, schools could "deliver" some of this kind of thing--and I emphasize some--digitally. But not as much as you might think. A lot of "content" that I learned--and still know--has stuck in my memory for a variety of reasons--e.g., I like it (it's cool to know that Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet); I use it frequently (hard to get through a day without knowing what the White House is); I'm proud of it (I've memorized over 130 poems; I review them continually so that they stay in my head so I can recite some lines when a fitting moment arrives); I admired and/or loved the person who first told me about it (my parents, some teachers, my friends, my wife). When love's involved, knowledge becomes ever more adhesive.
- We test what's easy to measure. These days, the vast (and enormously profitable) testing industry is, as everyone knows, driving the curriculum ... right over a cliff. Scores are all that matter. Little else. The test results are the products; the teachers, the sales clerks; the students, the consumers. We so revere numbers and statistics that we do not pause often enough to ask: Where do these numbers come from? Do they really measure what they purport to measure? What do they actually measure? Is what they're measuring worth the effort--and cost? What are the effects of all this testing on kids? On teachers? On the culture and morale of the school? Etc.? I've written here before about the wonderful writers I've taught who did not initially pass the 8th Grade Writing Proficiency Test in Ohio. Their problem? They wrote too well. They got "off topic." They veered off on an interesting detour, arrived by a different route, found Failure awaiting them.
- It seems to me that online education is even more susceptible to dishonesty and chicanery than traditional methods. How on earth do educators really know who's sitting at that screen? Doing that work?
But I guess what bothers me most is that online learning assumes that education is just the transmission of information--like a package from UPS. You see something online; you want it; you order it; it arrives; you open it; you have it.
But I know that education is not like that, not at all. In her 1984 novel The Finishing School, Gail Godwin has one character say to another: "The whole secret of teaching is to capture the student's imagination" (248). That is much closer to the truth, isn't it? Sure, teachers "teach" things--facts, ideas, concepts, connections--but most of that does not really linger long--not unless it fits the traits I mentioned above (you like it, you use it, etc.). What does linger? The image of those great teachers you've had--what they loved, how they dealt with you, how they ate knowledge like snack food--or a fine meal.
In my own case, the great teachers I had are with me every day--in my memory, in my imagination. They smile when I have an interesting thought, when I use something they taught me, when I display a skill they helped me learn, when I read a book they once talked about, when I just go off on something and want to learn all there is about it. Oh, and they frown when I do or say something stupid, when I'm careless, when I waste a moment of this most precious life.
I remember the looks on their faces, the gleam in their eyes, the touch of their hands on my shoulder, the passion that swelled in their voices, then overflowed, flooding the room; I remember their excitement about something they'd just learned or read--or just figured out. I remember their tears when they read lovely lines of verse.
I despair when I think that we are creating schools where such things are less likely to happen, where some future student's memory of a teacher will be only a flicker on a flat-screen monitor.