Opinion: Let’s admit it – online education is a pale shadow of the real thing

Sigh.

This is an opinion piece from a UoT philosophy professor, Mark Kingwell, published in the Globe and Mail. Its arguments (such as they are) are an extremely poor advertisement for his discipline or for the effectiveness of learning philosophy. This is my best attempt to reconstruct the argument he is making:

P1: education cannot properly occur without a college culture (no supporting evidence given. The existence of Athabasca University proves this to be false)

P2: Socratic engagement cannot occur apart from in-person (no supporting evidence given. Thousands of online philosophy courses doing just that prove this to be false)

P3: being there is better than being online (no supporting evidence given. This is just an opinion. My own opinion is that it depends entirely on what you do and how you do it. Sometimes it is better to shop from Amazon, sometimes it isn’t. I’ve had awful in-person experiences and wonderful online experiences, and vice versa)

P4: online learning cannot replicate the in-person experience (no supporting evidence given apart from a misquote of McLuhan, though I agree that this, at least, is true)

Therefore: if it is provided online, education (or at least the teaching of philosophy) cannot work. At least this conclusion more or less follows from the flawed premises, give or take the odd missing premise, and notwithstanding the fact that ‘education’ is not well defined, apart from circularly.

This is palpable nonsense. The only argument that has any weight whatsoever is that online learning cannot replicate in-person learning, albeit not for the reasons he provides. This is absolutely correct. It doesn’t, and it shouldn’t. It’s a different (though overlapping) set of orchestrations of a different (though overlapping) set of phenomena. It should no more be the same as in-person learning than driving a car should be the same as riding a horse. It is fair to say that if you apply exactly the same techniques to driving a car as you would to riding a horse the best and most likely thing that can happen is nothing. If by some miraculous accident you managed to get in the car by trying to mount it, and if for some reason it started moving (maybe you kicked the handbrake?), the results would not be pretty.

There is a potentially interesting though undeveloped argument to be made about the importance of college culture. I could not agree more that the processes of teaching that a professor manages are only a tiny fraction of what leads to learning and that the vast majority of learning in colleges (or any other teaching institution, especially online) does occur outside the classroom and beyond the purview of any professor. In fact, much of the time, much of it occurs long after a course is over, sometimes years later. I agree that the way colleges create safe and vibrant communities that support students’ growth and development is very valuable, especially in the context of straight-out-of-school kids who need to unlearn the dependencies that have been imposed on them by years of coercive schooling. The scaffolding it provides is great. It is a somewhat damning indictment of a teacher’s teaching, though, that this is the university’s main source of value, don’t you think? And is it really the only way to do this? And, if it is, why not make it available to everyone, rather than the few that you deem worthy of it?

As much as anything this sounds to me like an anguished cry for help from someone who is out of his depth, lost, and unable to understand how to change. So, here’s some advice for Professor Kingwell and anyone else suffering the same existential angst. Let go of the idea that teaching is something that you do to students. Think of it instead as a process of helping students to learn. Question your assumptions. Don’t try to approximate real seminars and lectures. They were poor (in the case of lectures, exceedingly poor) technologies in the first place that were only necessary because of physics and the need for medieval monks to indoctrinate as many people as possible in the absence of affordable books. Imagine what the advantages for students might be of learning in situ, of being able to take time to think about the answers, of being able to make use of and connect with the vast sources of knowledge (especially including other people) that are available online, of integrating their learning in their own lives and communities. Don’t forget that they have their own interests, physical contexts and social circles. Remember that you are only a part of their environment, not the controller of it. If you don’t think the skills of debate can be developed online, visit some of the discussions at r/philosophy on Reddit. You will, of course, despair of the poor quality of most of the arguments and the shallowness of many of the replies but isn’t that a wonderful opportunity? How can you make it better? Do you see glimmers of intelligent argument there that could be developed, with your help? Online learning is not and should not be the same as in-person learning. But it can be richer, more meaningful, more relevant, and more respectful of learners’ individuality and autonomy precisely because it does not suffer the same constraints and path dependencies of the old ways.

Addendum

There is another argument in this opinion piece that I have ignored, which does have empirical support and coherence, and it goes like this:

Students who have chosen in-person learning rather than online learning prefer in-person learning to online learning. Those dreaming spires and quads that he mentions, not to mention football and bars, and above all the general ‘college experience’, including the potential to drop out of the rest of society for a few years, probably have a great deal to do with this. Many current students resent paying the same over-inflated fees for what they rightly perceive to be a less valuable experience.

Therefore colleges will suffer from loss of revenue and smaller, less successful ones may close

That’s a fair argument, despite the obvious sampling bias. There’s no doubt that the skills and toolsets needed for effective online learning are far beyond the capabilities of most professors in most universities and colleges, as this plea for help reveals. In fact, even dedicated online institutions like Athabasca struggle a great deal to manage, with funding models that completely fail to address the realities and very unevenly spread pedagogical skills.

The current crisis certainly will massively disrupt education as we know it, much as it will disrupt most industries and institutions. There’s a lot of beautiful real estate that is not going to be well used, though it is not well used as it is, with most buildings and classrooms unused most of the time in most institutions, so this is only a matter of degree, as it were. These are interesting times. But that’s no reason to say that it won’t be as good. If we choose to make it better, it can be better.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/5800367/opinion-let%E2%80%99s-admit-it-%E2%80%93-online-education-is-a-pale-shadow-of-the-real-thing

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I was for too long the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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