Sunday, July 24, 2011

Reflective and Critical Thoughts on Online Education

So, I got into a bit of a controversial discussion over on the Media Ecology Association listserv, on the subject of online education.  It all started innocently enough, when I put up a post that the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University was looking for an adjunct instructor to teach a course on Social Media for the spring semester.  The course is taught in our department's Walsh Media Lab up in the Bronx, but one list member started arguing that teaching social media through an online course would be superior.  My former student Nick Leshi, who taught our course on Writing for Online Media last spring, rose to our defense in a manner that Neil Postman would approve.

A bit later, I entered into the discussion, and here's what I had to say, pulling out some of the specific address to particular individuals.

The argument for teaching about the new languages of new media through online educaton amounts to a kind of immersion method.  There are certainly advantages to doing this.  On the other hand, from Postman's perspective, face-to-face communication between teacher and student is exactly the kind of counterenvironment we need in response to the new media.  It is needed for education in general certainly, but I think it also extends to the teaching of new media, as it allows us to step outside of the system, so to speak.  It is perhaps the difference between teaching for proficiency vs. teaching to instill a reflective and critical approach.

I am not opposed to online education, the world is full of trade-offs, but we have to recognize that there is something lost as well as something gained.  Ignoring that fact is not what I would think of as employing a reflective and critical approach.

Postman's criticism of information technology was directed at the boosterism that surrounds it, the utopian claims, the lack of historical outlook, the failure to pay attention to the costs of innovation, what a new technology will undo.  He compared online education to a Big Brother program set up for children who have lost their fathers:  it may be necessary to compensate for what is missing (in the case on online education, for distance, disability, or lack of finances), but it is still sad that we have to do this, not something we should celebrate.

Peter Fallon put it very nicely, echoing the old Bell Telephone slogan--it's the next best thing to being there.  Not the best thing, but a substitute that is second best.

Years ago, at a New York State Communication Association conference, I was sitting with Postman during lunch, and there was a speaker who was a public school principal or superintendent from Brooklyn, and he was talking about their innovative program using computers to teach writing to kids from low income backgrounds.  And he was going on and on about how the kids can write something, and if they don't like what they've written, they can delete it, edit it, etc.  So Neil asked the question, "Why can't you do that with a paper and pencil?"  Now, there may well be an argument to be made about what working with computers will do that could never be done before, but the point was that this fellow could not answer the question.  He was just uncritically, unreflectively presenting the technology as an advance in pedagogy, a phenomenon all too common in education.

By the way,  great guide to the history of utopian claims about education technology can be found in Margaret Cassidy's book, Bookends, based on a dissertation completed under Neil's direction.

And a great reality check is to ask yourself, what do rich people do?  Given no limit on resources, do they opt for online education?  Or do they favor face-to-face interaction with teachers, with small class sizes, and one-on-one tutorials?  In a situation where there are few is any limitations, what is the preferred mode of education?

Now, I am not saying that it is impossible to instill a reflective and critical approach though online education.  I was commenting on the differences between the two modes, where online education is an immersive experience that does not provide a counterenvironment, and therefore is not the best environment for doing so.  Of course, the teacher makes a difference, the curriculum makes a difference, etc.  But all things being equal, you lose a major resource by going to online education, and that ought to be considered in making a decision of how to teach the class.

Edmund Carpenter says that Marshall McLuhan got the idea for "the medium is the message" from Ashley Montagu's statement, "In teaching it is the method and not the content that is the message...  the drawing out, not the pumping in.”  It is the relationship between teachers and students that is the message.  To say that the interposition of technology does not change that relationship is absurd.  To say that the interposition of technology only improves upon the relationship is myopic.  And to say that the interposition of technology can only detract from the relationship is also shortsighted.  The point is not to deny the benefits, only to ask if they're worth the cost, and to ask under what conditions is it appropriate and advantageous to use the technology, and under what conditions is it not.

A point was made about celebrating the fact that individuals with hearing impairment can participate on an equal footing in the online environment, and I agree that that is worthy of celebration.  However, they do so at the cost of silencing the voices of others, and that at least is worthy of note.  If we don't want to consider whether this serves the greater good, we should at least acknowledge that some sacrifice is being made to achieve the goal of inclusion.

As the parent of a child with a disability, I'm well aware of the debates concerning inclusion, and while it is a goal for many parents, and often a matter of economy for schools, it is more beneficial for students to receive education tailored to their individual needs (IEP), and federal law in the US mandates that every child receive an "appropriate" education.

Some argue that online education is more efficient than the traditional classroom, in terms of time and productivity, and Jacques Ellul would certainly see this as a matter of employing technical means to solve technical problems.  But in contrast to training, education is not a matter of technique, or at least it ought not to be. 

I should add that at Fordham, almost all of our classes are small, typically capped at 35 students, and our media lab classes at 18.  There is a big difference between that sort of classroom experience and the large lecture class, which I would consider the first form of distance education.   So when I'm talking about face-to-face, I'm talking about the seminar as an ideal form, and yes, you can do an online seminar, but there are trade-offs.  You can do an online lecture class too, and maybe the trade-offs there are not so costly.

I don't consider the medieval university to be ideal.  I guess it's a cultural thing, but I favor Talmudic scholarship myself, and I don't see anything wrong with debating Midrash (unlike some who use that phrase pejoratively).  Walter Ong does make the point that the introduction of printing led to new approaches to education, notably Ramism, which shifted emphasis from dialogue to the text, from the oral-aural world to visualism, from knowledge coming out of debate and disputation to knowledge as facts laid out in a book. The new method had advantages and disadvantages.  But it set in motion a trend towards the technologization of education that was accelerated by 19th century industrialism, for example with the emphasis on grading and competition in schooling.  Whether online education continues the tendency towards teaching as a technological activity remains to be seen, but arguments suggesting it is a more efficient, productive method should certainly give us pause.

Postman argued that schools provide a balance between orality and literacy, talking and the book.  Titles such as Rabbi and Guru refer to individuals who interpret texts, make them speak again, allow them to respond to questions and provide explanation and elaboration.  He believed that we had achieved a balance between the oral and the literate, one that was hard to achieve, hard to maintain, often precarious, and too often messed with, and he asked whether it's a good idea to upset that balance quite so much as the celebrants of new media are suggesting that we do?

And I think that he would say, well maybe it is a good idea, but at least, we're entitled to ask the question.

Postman also pointed out that teaching is one of the hardest things anyone can do, that it is very difficult to create real, significant, deep and longlasting change in the hearts and minds of others, which is what teachers try to do.  So, as teachers, we're always failing, and when someone comes along with a new method or medium, new technique or technology, teachers often embrace it out of desperation.

I don't doubt that online education will be an increasingly more attractive alternative to traditional higher education, for reasons of time and money.  I don't doubt that there will be some things that online education will do better than traditional education.  I also don't doubt that there will be something very important lost in the exchange.

The bottom line is, let's keep asking questions.  That more than anything, is what education is all about.


Mike Plugh said...

I dropped in on that conversation late, but I tend to agree with your take (unsurprisingly). I think the main benefit of online ed is de-institutionalizing certain aspects of learning that school structures impose, but there's a lot of ground to cover before that can be effectively realized. Foremost is the imposition of rigid school structures VIA online education. Online ed can't fulfill its real potential if all it does is replicate the classroom at a distance.

Lance Strate said...

You made some very good points in the discussion, Mike. I like your emphasis on the importance of being grounded in the community. As for de-institutionalizing, the problem is one of maintaining balance, otherwise the result becomes all too easily one of destabilizing.

Nick said...

It's been a great topic for debate. I think we only serve our students well if we continue to evolve our teaching methods and use all of the tools available to us, especially when it involves media, communication, and technology. As I said in my original response, traditional face-to-face in-classroom teaching methods still have a place.