As a sociology professor who believes in the power of the spoken word, the critical analysis of an issue, the learning by questioning process, I am disheartened by the proliferation of online courses. Such courses may be a college administrator’s dream, but they are a serious educator’s nightmare.
Since the beginning of my career in college teaching (a career well into its fourth decade), I’ve strongly believed that digressions from the topic at hand, off-the-cuff remarks, spontaneous questions and answers, non-verbal behavior, even well-timed jokes make up a course. Indeed, such spontaneous remarks and actions may be more important than the official subject matter. Little of that spontaneity is possible with online courses, however. The latter often generate rote memorization, the very process liberal arts courses try to avoid.
Online courses presuppose the student is mature and motivated to learn. But most young students I’ve encountered in my years of teaching sociology need to be inspired to see the value of the subject to their personal lives. Merely reading an online lesson does not do the trick.
Teaching is an art form where the teacher has to find a way to finesse his or her delivery of the subject matter so that it resonates with the student. Together, teachers and students seek the “ah-ha” reaction, even a “eureka” response. I don’t see how that can be accomplished without person-to-person or group interaction.
Furthermore, it is exceedingly difficult to convey by written word alone the nuances of an idea, theory, or concept, especially in a subject so human-centered as sociology. Just as cyber-sex is no replacement for real human contact, online teaching is no substitute for the intimacy of true learning.
Why do institutions of higher learning persist in expanding their online curricula? In the main, the motivation is cost efficiency and higher profits, as well as being able to dispense with personnel and all the financial and political problems they represent. If the name of the game is to eliminate personnel, not just in industry but now in education, online courses offer a winning strategy. From a purely technocratic, institutional perspective, you get more bang for the buck.
Another reason: there are fewer student complaints when a course is online. Students are satisfied because they are free of “teachers’ dirty looks.” It may also be easier in an online environment for students to get other people to do the course work for them. In a word: cheat.
But the real problem is not student cheating. It’s that education itself has become instrumental. It’s all about course credits and credentials. It doesn’t matter how you acquire them; it doesn’t matter how much you’ve truly learned. What matters are the credentials, simply that.
My hunch is that the proliferation of online courses will produce more technocrats, more followers, more worker-bees, more drones. Unthinking drones may pose fewer problems for authority, but they may also follow authority blindly. Think here of Hannah Arendt’s exploration of the character of Adolf Eichmann, a technocratic follower who illustrated her thesis of the banality of evil.
We don’t need more online courses. What we need are more professors who challenge their students, in the classroom, face-to-face, mind-to-mind, as depicted so memorably by John Houseman in the film, “The Paper Chase.” That’s real, human-centered, education. It’s what we need today more than ever.
Richard Sahn is a professor of sociology and an at-large contributor to The Contrary Perspective.