Online Teaching Is Inferior to the Classroom Experience

Best to avoid a skull full of mush when this man is teaching (John Houseman in "The Paper Chase")

Best to avoid a skull full of mush when this man is teaching (John Houseman in “The Paper Chase”)

Richard Sahn

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.

4 thoughts on “Online Teaching Is Inferior to the Classroom Experience

  1. Somewhere between occasionally and often, we enjoy classroom learning. Under ideal circumstances – a great administrative office that makes enrollment, tuition payments and logistical support a breeze, great department protocols with clear scheduling, good advisors and friendly teachers, and great classrooms with thoroughly knowledgable and yet intellectually curious and broad-minded professors and intelligent, invigorated students, classroom learning provides a superb experience.
    But how often to you see all that come together?
    We LOVE that online learning has presented a challenge to the status quo and inertia of bumbling, out of touch college presidents and their equally bumbling, out of touch boards, admissions offices that act as though they’re doing you a favor anytime they even pick up a phone, and narrow-minded professors who don’t know as much as they think they do – and are intolerant of differing views.
    Meanwhile… we live in remarkable times. Out here in the Alaska Bush, hundreds and even thousands of miles from institutions of hire education, Barbra is completing a master’s degree in technology. Mooks and real-time meetings, message boards and collaborative assignments give her a fairly authentic classroom experience, and the content is generally excellent. I’m currently “enrolled” on a first-rate culinary course via DVD and text – my long-time dream of studying with the Culinary Institute of America finally realized, and at a cost far less than actually attending their campus in Napa would be. Last year, we took an outstanding 26-lesson photography course, again by way of DVD. Incredibly positive experiences all.
    By contrast, my last two experiences with a “real” college left me frustrated and downright angry with their inertia, horrible customer service, and inability to communicate effectively.
    This competition will be GOOD for some of these complacent brick-and-morter institutions. The other aspect to keep in mind is this: Some colleges have arisen which deliver almost all of their instruction via distance learning. So it’s not just that traditional universities are exploring this. It’s a venture in and of itself – and is changing higher education in ways that make it more accessible and affordable than ever. If I were a president of a traditional IHE, it wouldn’t be these online classes I’d fear, but by own incompetence and my administrator’s incapability of delivering satisfactory customer service. Students have choices now.

  2. I think teaching a humanistic class like Sociology would be exceptionally difficult online. Even a history class would be easier. Sociology is so centered on human interaction that I think much of the course content would be lost (or exceedingly difficult to convey) in an online environment.

    I think the biggest thing that’s lost online is the passion and enthusiasm of the teacher. Passion and enthusiasm are contagious. Also lost is instantaneous interaction among students, both verbal and non-verbal. So much of communication is non-verbal, e.g. body language.

    Students today spend so much time staring at screens, in self-created bubbles. Online learning tends to keep them in those bubbles, or it doesn’t encourage them to break out.

    In today’s tech-centered world, traditional education becomes more important, not less. Reality trumps virtual reality, at least for me.

  3. Online teaching is simply different from classroom teaching
    I have taught for the University of Wyoming for four decades, mostly in classrooms. Nevertheless, I initiated online teaching at the University many years ago and for the last few decades have apportioned my teaching load to at least one or two online courses a semester. Now, retired, I teach exclusively online courses. While I agree with the criticisms leveled at online teaching the same can be attributed to classroom teaching. When I first started as a “supply assistant professor,” I was assigned to teach introductory psychology courses with over two hundred and fifty students and the same criticisms attributed to online courses apply.
    Online teaching is simply different, much as a class with over two-hundred and fifty students is different from a seminar class with eight students. Wyoming is the only state with a single four-year opportunity to learn, the most sparsely populated state, and one of the largest. Online teaching provides students with the opportunity to learn, while maintaining a job and a family without having to travel six hours for a class. I think there is some confusion between the old “correspondence” courses and online teaching. While I have never taught a correspondence course even though they existed before I started teaching, I understand that the student was given some book or series of papers to read and then answer some questions over what they had read. In contrast, in my online courses, I require the students to read various materials, supplemented with videos, audios, and slide shows that I have created. As an example, in the forensic psychology course I am teaching now, I traveled over two states and videotaped interviews of exemplary forensic psychologists. The students, as in a classroom-based seminar, spend the week interacting and discussing the videos, and most importantly, meet with me in one of two required chat sessions for a half an hour each week. The interaction of the students in response to my opening questions or “prompts” is asynchronous learning – learning that takes place each day over a week compared to meeting with me during the week or synchronous learning.
    Do I miss the interactions that face to face teaching brings, yes of course. Do I appreciate that students that would I never have a chance to interact with because of the distances inherent in a state such as Wyoming, now can interact and have almost all of the same forms of communication inherent in a face to face classroom including laughter, going off on tangents, “digressions from the topic at hand, off-the-cuff remarks, spontaneous questions and answers, non-verbal behavior, [and] even well-timed jokes”

  4. Pingback: Enough About ‘dave': Exploring Spontaneity and the Metaphor of the Gardner | She's So Heavy

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