By Peter Galuszka
Despite the “existential threat” involving online education at the University of Virginia, Mr. Jefferson’s school certainly seems to be at the forefront of the debate.
You have President Tereaa Sullivan being fired and then reinstated, the curious fact that the school actually was involved with online advacements after all, criticism from the Darden School of Business and now this New York Times opinion piece by English Professor Mark Edmundson.
He notes the drumbeat for putting courses online, but says there really is something to be said for actually having a real professor in a real class with real students. Sticking knowledge in digital doses kills dialogue that is the absolutely best way for students to learn.
As he says: “Learning at its best is a collective exercise, something we’ve known since Socrates.”
In-class courses allow for a precious back and forth between teacher and students. You just don’t get that when you have a professor, even a very good one, reciting material into a camera, even if it is juiced up with clever videos, interactive media and a few students about as props. The Web professor, however, is little more than a figure on a tube. For all you know, he could be Sponge Bob Squarepants. Professors can’t tailor their teaching t0 the classes.
“Every memorable class,” writes Edmundson, “is a bit like a jazz composition. There is a basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.”
True, Edmunson teaches courses on authors such as Shakespeare that our go-go digitizers see as frivolous and not in keeping with the hot world of STEM so we can grow engineers like the Tiger Mothers of Asia.
Sure, there is a place for exploiting the reach and convenience of the Web and other electronics. Some archaeologists, for instance, put lectures on Ipods that students can listen to as they actually travel to the places being discussed and let the invisible professor lead them on the ruins step-by-step.
Technology cannot substitute for true content overall. It sounds so 1960s, “the Medium is the Message.” Edmundson is spot on in his analysis and another reason why the folks who thought the Hoo-ville Board of Visitors “gets it” are so dead wrong.