Volume 80 | Issue 5
September 2012

Executive Director's Column: A Matter of Dialogue

Marsha Herman-Betzen

During an animated discussion at lunch the other day, two of my colleagues were talking about how much they loved their online classes. I was fascinated by their enthusiasm and asked what they liked about this method of absorbing knowledge. They said they appreciated the opportunities to learn independently given the self-directed nature of the medium. As a flaming extrovert who mightMHB seem outmoded in my opinion, I could not fathom why anyone would choose to take a course online instead of attending in a physical classroom.

I understand the pros of online learning: you don’t have to commute, you take classes in your birthday suit, you learn when it is convenient, you can express yourself in writing rather than verbally, you proceed at your own pace, and outgoing students like me will not monopolize the discussions. But what about face-to-face interaction, networking opportunities, and immediate feedback from classmates and instructors? There are so many teaching methods and educational formats that just don’t translate to online instruction. Forget synergy, cooperation, and collaboration; tell me how you teach public speaking, surgery, gross anatomy, dental hygiene, acting, violin, commercial art, tennis, debate, or culinary skills online.

I question the premise that online education can ever be instruction of the best sort. Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, bemoaned this question in his July 20, 2012 New York Times opinion piece. “With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are,” he said. “We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people, and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.”

And it is that dialogue, it is that coffee after class arguing some abstract construct with your cohort, that makes learning the stimulating exploration of knowledge that education truly is. Online learning does not foster the same sense of community. Online learning does not help you develop social competencies. Online learning does not give you experience in group effectiveness, volunteerism, participatory decision making, leadership, or social responsibility. If you believe that out-of-classroom experiences provide the opportunity to balance coursework with the development of persons as well as intellects, where and when does the cooperative learning take place?

“A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students,” Edmundson continued. “It’s a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates. You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is—and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.”

Instead of selecting online courses, individuals should immerse themselves in college classes from a variety of professors and teaching methods surrounded by others. Becoming involved in student activities and hanging out in the college union wouldn’t be bad either.