Online Education’s Dearth of Dialogue

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.

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  1. larryg Avatar

    “can’t dialogue with a teacher in a box”

    Oh Contraire!

    One of the huge breakthroughs in Autism has been handing those kids IPADS upon which the kids (not all) proceed to “learn” when conventional approaches failed.

    Saying that “online” or “in a box” does not allow “give and take” or collaboration between students and teacher is not paying attention to where the technology already is headed and has gotten there in fact.

    If you can put an internet pipe with enough bandwidth in South West Virginia, you can have a bright 18 year old “conversing” in a virtual classroom with the professor.

    Peter, you’re hanging on to a buggy whip … continuing to extol it’s virtues while the horse remains in the barn and the kids have taken the car!

    But the biggest mistake that Edmundson makes is to justify the benefit of a good professor to only a small group of people when that professor could be enlightening 10, 20, 100 times as many young who are yearning to learn but cannot afford 4 years at UVA.

    So… you have folks who are essentially trying to justify an educational monopoly that appears to seek to want to protect it’s lucrative franchise even as it calls itself an institution of education. When you do this, you’re no longer about education but instead about protecting your version of it and that’s a recipe for making yourself obsolete.

  2. I don’t think you would find many people disagreeing with Edmundson, that learning through face-to-face interaction with the professor is the preferred setting for higher education. Most everything he said in the NY Times column rings true. But it’s obvious that he is an English professor, not an economist. He ignores one very, very important factor: cost.

    The educational setting Edmundson espouses is very expensive, and not everyone can afford it.

    And he sidesteps a critical point. No one is talking about using online education to teach Shakespeare (not for college credit anyway). They’re talking about using online education to teach introductory level courses, like the Biology 101 and Economics 101 courses I took at UVa with 200 or more students. Don’t tell me there’s a lot of meaningful professor-student interaction in those classes, because there isn’t. That kind of course, and STEM courses with lots of “right or wrong” answers that can be quickly and easily graded are the most likely candidates for online instruction.

    As the online education industry matures and the technology continues to improve, as others have observed on this blog, we will likely see further incursions. But there will always be a balancing act.

    1. reed fawell Avatar
      reed fawell

      James Bacon is right. And on line introductory courses free up the professors and universities to do what they do best, yet what is sorely missing in much of today’s higher education. Namely the organizing of small group Socratic Seminars, where people of similar talents and educations levels can meet under great teachers and learn deeply.

      This now can be done on site, or via video hookup. It’s a great opportunity for great universities, because the those who bundle have neither the talent or interest to do it.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Reed Fawell and Jim,
    Strange but having introductory courses online to allow professors to have more one-on-one with more advanced students was exactly what Tereas Sullivan wanted to do.
    I guess she “got it” after all.

    1. reed fawell Avatar
      reed fawell

      Yes, indeed. I remember it plainly stated in her May vision statement.

  4. larryg Avatar

    I’m not convinced that the bricks and mortar college learning environment is the “best” for all people even if money is no concern.

    It’s “traditional”. Let’s face it, people don’t go to UVA for face time. They go there hoping to come away after 4 years with a coveted degree from UVA.

    College Students, in fact, are infamous for their avoidance of direct interactions with some professors and absence from classes where professors don’t give random quizzes.

    Some people, yes.. the highly value that face-to-face interaction with SOME professors but not all by any means.

    I wonder if some of this is really a surrogate for mentoring. Mentoring is the creme-de-la-creme learning experience to have someone directly interested in helping YOU and you can for sure buy that quality at a private school but the business of a public university using public funds is to provide a fair and equitable access without regard to finances and when costs disadvantage some – one might question what the mission of the University should be if it is using public funds.

    My view is that if you take public funds – then you need to work to provide access to all who qualify but cannot afford and the University physically and fiscally cannot accommodate all who would attend.

    If UVA wants to become an exclusive enclave catering to a select audience, – and there may well be a sentiment to do that rather than a public university then UVA perhaps that’s the question here instead of what online education should mean to a University like UVA.

    And perhaps Virginia should change it’s funding model to be directed at promising students rather than Universities as entities.

    I must say this. I’ve always respected MIT – and what they’re doing now, affirms my respect for them – and, in fact, any University that embraces online like MIT is.

    UVA might have some “legacy” connections to “Ole Virginy” …. the idea that there always was an “elite”in Virginia and the “elite”needed the kind of education that UVA would provide but it certainly was not for the masses.

    so.. have I kicked a hornets nest?

  5. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    I think you raise many interesting points.

    And new technologies are going to raise hosts of related and unrelated questions. Such as not only those concerning the University / student relationships, but also those that concern the University / Professor relationships, the Professor / Student relationships, the University / Alumni relationships, and the University / Private partnership / State relationship.

    My Golly, this is all rich and fascinating stuff. It chock full of opportunity and abuse. Like all Great Revolutions, I guess. On the hand, you get the US constitution. On another you get Napoleon. It all depends on how wisdom, folly, and special interests versus public interests, all align with force to direct otherwise uncontrollable forces.

  6. Richard Avatar

    College is too expensive. There are different types of learners, and for some computers are very helpful. Computers definitely can help with costs and individual learning.

    Neither Socrates or Jesus ever wrote anything down. The greatest teachers teach one-to-one. Ideally you’d have an education that combined written materials, computers, and individual dialogue and instruction.

    The big issue I see with computers is testing. How do you certify that someone has learned the material? How does one get feedback when one doesn’t do well on a test? I think it likely that these computer universities will utilize computer testing and grading, and that will lead to “teaching to the test” and “studying to the test.”
    Another issue is that computer testing misses a lot. A student who doesn’t quite get it, but who is clearly excited about a topic and has a good “personality” will look the same to a professor as a student who is brilliant at test taking but doesn’t bring much else to the table.

    Also, certification. If the only measure of learning is a test result, will “merit” be determined by test results? Will we have a Confucian system whereby your place in society is determined primarily by your test scores, without other input from teachers?

  7. larryg Avatar

    I’d like to see UVA embrace the online world to bring to every child in Va, the opportunity to achieve. Actually I’d like to see Va coordinate an Online University with the support of UVA, Va Tech, William & Mary, ODU, James Madison, George Mason, etc… so that any child in Va no matter where he/she lived and no matter their financial ability – any child that had the ability and the motivation – to learn.

    It’s a simple concept but it requires the Universities to step down from their Ivory pedestals… and get back to the core purpose of their existence.

    I don’t have much patience for excuses.

  8. DJRippert Avatar

    The Edmundson character is a stitch.

    Yeah, students sit outside on marble benches listening, in small groups, to a bearded professor as nature’s sunlight bathes them all in a warm glow.

    Reality check!

    Even 35 years ago I attended classes at UVA in an auditorium with several hundred of my closest friends. The professor looked like Jiminy Cricket seventy five meters away yammering on stage as the assembled students took notes and did not ever ask questions. Once a week, you could spend 50 minutes with a stressed out graduate student with only 30 other students.

    Socrates my ass!

    “… 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.”.

    Yeah – me, Mickey Mintel / Mavis Heatherington / Ken Elzinga and about 300 other students.

    This guy is an English professor? I guess that’s good. He sure can pump out the fiction.

    I have an idea – why don’t one of you investigative journalism typed drive on over to Charlottesville this September and sit in on a couple of classes.

    Tell me when you stumble upon modern day Socrates.

    1. reed fawell Avatar
      reed fawell

      Forty five years ago was exactly the same. I tried a few times to find a mentor. Got rebuffed each time. Fortunately, I knew how to party. And to meet and bond with some great people my own age, who were having the same problem, although things worked out of us in the end. But my UVA professors had nothing to do with that. So otherwise my UVA days would have been a total loss.

      1. reed fawell Avatar
        reed fawell

        On reflection, my above statement is unfair. During my four years undergraduate studies at UVA I encountered three memorable courses.

        Two were graduate seminars. One was taught by Dr. Ramazoni (perhaps misspelled), and Iranian Scholar on Middle East politics and political systems. The 2nd seminar was taught by a Chinese Scholar who had also been a fighter pilot for the Nationalist side. Despite the fact the man could barely speak English, he gave powerful testimony.

        The 3rd course, done in Cabell Hall’s main auditorium, was an introductory course in Economics taught by the Head of UVA’s Economics Department. Given by a nationally prominent Conservative Economist, it was extremely popular. This professor provided much of the intellectual firepower behind the newly budding Conservative Movement, including Goldwater and Reagan. These three Professors in these three one semester courses had a profound impact on my education. They along lit up my mind because they were great teachers. The rest of Professor wise at UVA undergraduate was, best I can tell for me, a total loss.

        1. reed fawell Avatar
          reed fawell

          Of course, the problem in all this is I had to pay in time and money for four years of college to get three great one semester courses. Today I’d that’s cost money wise around $160,000.

          Whereas now with technology I can, with three clicks of a mouse, download three World Class Courses by Three World Class Professors, including one from UVA, for around $200 bucks tops. Then educate myself on Shakespeare at my leisure.

          In effect, I spent four years at UVA undergrad but got the vast bulk of my college classroom education in my spare time at the Teaching Company. Yes, that’s the plain unvarnished truth. Our university students deserve better. And, fortunately, it’s coming their way fast, whether Universities hop aboard or not. But, if they do, and do it in the right way, education will be much to better.

  9. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    I agree totally with Richard and Larry.

    Regarding how different people learn differently: A computer can transform an apparent dope into a genius, if one is dyslexic. And do it in many ways otherwise not available, whether visual, audio, or mind to hand.

    In my generation, this was not understood. This brought tragedy down on many an otherwise fine scholar, or otherwise average or good learner.

    Today, the knowledge and tools are in place. But still far too many institutions (or individual professors), to their great and everlasting discredit, refuse to make rather simple adjustments that can change the learning experience of some of these students. No doubt the new technologies in part remedy some of this, bringing good and great educations within the range of many of these neglected learners.

    On a related front. Far too many Universities have neglected the small focused seminar. Along with it, they have far too often ignored a vitally important part of any responsible professor’s job description, the role of mentor. Thus many potentially willing students don’t yet their monies worth. Done right, new Technologies should help to shift the University back to this currently neglected model, the energized seminar led by great mentors, which is of course the very heart of good teaching. Otherwise, in my view quite frankly, Professors will be get away with gross malpractice.

  10. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    According to Peter Galuszka: “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.”

    This is totally foreign to my experience. The Shakespearean Great Courses of The Teaching Company that I’ve taken include:

    1. Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies – 36 lectures –
    2. Shakespeare: The Words and the Action – 16 Lectures
    3. Shakespeare: Tragedies – 24 lectures

    Courses one and two were taught by Professor Peter Saccio, PHD Princeton University and Dartmouth College. The Leon D. Black Professor of English Emeritus at Dartmouth, Professor Saccio has been honored with the J. Kenneth Huntington Memorial Award for Outstanding Teaching. He’s author of Shakespeare’s English Kings, a classic in its field. An accomplished actor and theatrical director, he’s also directed Productions of Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Cymberline. His acting credits include Shakespearean roles of Casca, Angelo, Bassanio, and Henry IV.

    Course 3 was taught by Professor Clare R. Kinney, PhD. Dr. Kinney is Associate Professor of English at University of Virginia. She earned her B.A. in English at Cambridge University. Under a Paul W. Mellon Fellowship, she attended Yale to earn her Ph.D. In 2007 Professor Kinney was recipient of University of Virginia All – University Teaching Award. She also received a Distinguished Faculty Award from the Z Society of the University of Virginia. Professor Kinney’s many articles include essays on Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Edmond Spenser, Milton, and Eliot. Her specialty is the literature of English Renaissance. She directs staged readings of plays by Shakespeare’s Contemporaries at Blackfriar’s Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia.

    I have listened to these lectures at least two, often three times. I have read deeply into each lecture’s list of recommended readings (typically books). I purchase these books at Amazon or ABE, always hard cover books if available. After my reading they become part of my permanent library.

  11. larryg Avatar

    I think the idea that online learners would not benefit from online exposure to Shakespeare smacks of elitism. You’d deny some kid in SW Va from learning more about Shakespeare because you can only “properly” learn it in a bricks and mortar setting?


    you can tell when professors are getting desperate when they make arguments like this….

    1. reed fawell Avatar
      reed fawell

      You got it – scared to death their cushy monopoly is coming a-cropper.

  12. Darrell Avatar

    Carl Sagan. Remember him? The rest of academia is finally catching on.

    Then you have this Shakespeare professor guy. Guess he would stick his nose in the air at modern interpretations. And Lord forbid he got out in the real world to see Shakespeare in action, like maybe kicking back with a beer while watching the gritty behind the scenes intrigue in some SE Asian girly bar or even his students off time?

    Shakespeare presented his works at The Globe. He sold printed copies to the literate among the crowds. He didn’t lock them away in an ivory tower guarded by self-appointed purists. Shouldn’t the author’s own actions give Edmunson a clue as to Shakespeare’s true intentions for all eternity? Or is he tenured in narcissism?

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