Monday, July 25, 2011
Further Thoughts on Online Education
Some follow-up thoughts...
Neil Postman wrote an essay entitled, "The Educationist as Painkiller," and taking a cue from Sigmund Freud, we might characterize education as a "talking cure". Would psychological therapy be enhanced by a move from a face-to-face situation to an online environment? While therapy and teaching are not quite the same thing, they can be understood as a part of a continuum. In the autism community, children go to school where the teachers typically employ applied behavioral analysis, which can be understood as a form of therapy. The ABA method originates with Helen Keller's teacher, Anne Sullivan, and the behavioral therapy is often referred to as a "learning" theory. All kinds of therapy involve learning how to avoid dysfunctional behaviors and to engage in positive behaviors. Occupational therapy is about learning how to improve the use of one's motor skills, senses, body. Of course, learning can take place with or without a teacher, so the question is, under what conditions are teachers best able to conduct therapy and facilitate learning?
Joseph Weizenbaum famously created the AI program Eliza, which simulated the very basic responses of a Rogerian psychotherapist. Writing about this in Computer Power and Human Reason, he related that he was surprised at how attached people in his office became to Eliza, taking it seriously despite knowing that it was just a program, and shocked that psychotherapists saw this as a serious possibility for making therapy available to the masses. Following the lead of Jacques Ellul, Weizenbaum concluded that there are many things we may be capable of doing with our technologies, but we need to consider that there are some things we *ought* not to do.
The asynchronous characteristic of online communication is most certainly one of its great strengths. But there is a downside that we ought at least to acknowledge, and hopefully consider, as it undermines the concepts of schedules and boundaries, and the discipline that they comes with such practices. It may well be that the trade-off is worth it in this instance, but we should not be fooled into thinking that innovation provides us with a free lunch. And if we're aware of the cost, we might have a better chance of compensating for what is lost. The loss of boundaries in general has long been associated with the electronic media, we do have some qualms about blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction, news and advertising, education and entertainment, and public and private. If nothing else, we need to think about what the technology is undoing in order to cope with the fallout and blowback.
Marshall McLuhan, along with Eric McLuhan, wrote abut the city and the world as classroom. In other words, their answer to the limitations of the classroom, highly structured by print as it is, was to get out into the physical environment, engage with the world. They did not advocate moving into the even more highly mediated environment that new media represent.
Digital media have amplified concerns about plagiarism in written work beyond anything that existed previously. What happens, then, when the student's entire presence in a course is in the form of written work? Will an instructor teaching the same course over and over again resort to self-plagiarism, copying and pasting text from previous semesters, rather than writing things out anew? And look to the future one step further, and the entire course can be programmed (this has already happened in regard to big lecture courses). Essentially, the line is blurred between online education and programmed instruction, which amounts to an interactive textbook.
I'm all for making education more affordable through online alternatives, and I also embrace the possibilities of bringing education outside of the ivory tower and institutional boundaries through new media. But what happens to the gatekeeping function, to standards, and again, to boundaries, under these conditions (a concern shared by other sectors, e.g., journalism). With the trend in higher education towards employing greater numbers of adjuncts and moving away from the tenure system, will education be reduced to another form of customer service to be outsourced, a kind of reverse brain drain? Put into broader terms, new media environments will disrupt institutions built on the basis of older media environments. We can't just add the new media and keep everything else the same. So, how do we deal with the disruptions to edcuational institutions that will inevitably occur?
When you look at how Postman and McLuhan actually taught, it was through talking. Getting a group together in one place and bouncing ideas off of one another. There's a reason for that, I believe, and while I'm willing to work with alternatives, to me, my ideal will always be Postman and Nystrom's doctoral seminars, and going out for a bite and a drink afterwards.