An article in these pages last week, "We Are Not Luddites," by Brooks Kohler, argues that being skeptical of online learning does not make one a Luddite.
Very well, then. I think most academics would agree. If his article had gone on to critique the tendency of tech folks to alienate skeptics of online learning by labeling them backward or hopelessly outdated, I would have been on board.
But Kohler takes a curious turn when he writes that liberal arts instructors who welcome online learning are in a state of “technological hypnosis.” Students, according to Kohler, are in a “fixative trance.” Apparently digital technology is a dangling medallion swinging back and forth, and we are all getting very, very sleepy.
Kohler goes on to describe a “pathetically sad” scene in which “a classroom could be reduced to a rectangle (sic) screen on a distant wall, or thought to be comparable to that of a interior space where a qualified human stands as the moderator before eyes that are watching.” Online learning to Kohler is inherently dystopian, akin to Orwell’s 1984, while the face-to-face classroom is, in contrast, natural and human.
This conversation calls to mind Plato’s Phaedrus. In this dialogue, Socrates laments the technology of writing because he fears it will diminish memory skills if Athenian citizens no longer have to memorize and practice oral discourse.
Worse yet, writing is inferior to speech, according to Socrates, because we can’t argue with a piece of paper like a living person; writing only has the appearance of wisdom, not wisdom itself.
Frankly, I’m not interested in reinforcing such a strict for/against dichotomy when discussing online learning and new digital technologies. I think such binary thinking is part of the problem.
I teach face-to-face, online, and blended sections of composition at a small rural state university and I see strengths and limitations in all three approaches. My online classes look nothing like Kohler’s panoptic nightmare. Or, at least, I hope they do not -- now that I think of it, perhaps students calling me Big Brother isn’t a term of endearment after all.
Kohler does not take kindly to being called a Luddite, yet he suggests teachers and students working hard to make online learning rigorous, academic and accessible are hypnotized dupes attracted to shiny surfaces and entranced by blinking lights. Worse yet, he charges that online learning encourages contingent academic labor and the demise of tenure-track positions when in fact this erosion has been a decades-long process with roots extending long before online learning.
Notice I’ve been using the term “online learning” and not “MOOCs,” the latter against which I harbor a much deeper skepticism, but that’s a story for another time. I highlight this distinction because a sleight of hand occurs when Kohler begins his article by discussing MOOCs only to substitute that digital phenomenon with a more generalized “online learning” later in the same paragraph.
I’m not just splitting hairs. MOOCs and online learning are too often conflated. They are, of course, not the same thing. Suggesting otherwise is merely shoving stuffing into a straw man. The problems of MOOCs do not automatically extend to online learning in general.
A similar game of three-card monte is performed when Kohler uses a generalized “technology” when he really means new digital technologies. This slippage leads to historical and theoretical quandaries.
For example, when Kohler chortles “as if a pen and pad were inherently inferior” he fails to recognize that pen and paper are technologies, and that writing itself is a technology, as Walter Ong famously argued. Conflating new digital technologies that facilitate online learning with technology in general results in a fixed, narrow, and uncomplicated definition of technology.
Again, this isn’t academic hair-splitting. Such a distinction is helpful because it leads our dialogue away from dystopic visions and forces us to confront the fact that even analog technology like Kohler’s “pen and pad” shape how and what we learn.
Because teachers believe that online learning can be a worthwhile experience does not mean that we are hypnotized, nor does it mean that we are chasing fads and abandoning “literature and writing” and a “fine attention to detail,” as Kohler claims.
Instead of charging one another as either entranced by new technologies or a Luddite, we should be cultivating dialogue, criticism and best practices to make online education better.
We should also pay more attention to issues of race, class and access when it comes to online learning. And we should be building space and time into our online courses for students to reflect on their own skepticism and concerns with digital learning. Including students in this dialogue is essential.
I too am skeptical of online learning. However, this skepticism does not lead me away from online teaching, but toward it. I want to make it better. I believe it’s our duty to make it better. Drawing broad caricatures of online teachers and students only reinforces the importance of not devolving into a strict for/against dichotomy in our dialogue.
John F. Raucci Jr. is an assistant professor of English at Frostburg State University.
Mark: President Eliot! I didn’t realize you’d be attending this alumni event. You know, given that you’ve been dead for almost a century.
Charles: Yes, it’s the strangest thing. Last I remember, I was skating on Fresh Pond….
M: Cryogenics are quite wonderful. Didn’t do much for Ted Williams, though.
M: Not important. I’ve read a lot about you. Harvard’s president for 40 years. You really were (air quotes) “Charles in Charge!”
M: Well, you’d never last that long today, especially spouting controversial views on education and society like you did. Didn’t work out so well for the last guy here.
C: Our positions demanded that we take leadership of the intellectual and moral issues of our day.
M: Now you’re just expected to raise money.
C: We did that as well.
M: Oh, it’s a different ballgame these days, a lot more complex. Higher expectations and greater accountability. But more perks and better pay, too. Some university presidents make over a million bucks a year. Can you believe it?
C: That’s preposterous.
M: You should ask President Faust about what today’s presidency entails.
C: Yes, I’ve been meaning to speak with him.
M: Her. President Faust is a woman.
C: (air quotes) “Drew” is a woman?
M: Oh, yeah. Harvard’s first female president.
C: A woman president. Astounding.
M: Not really. Half the Ivy League has had female presidents.
C: Half the what? What’s an Ivy League?
M: It’s an intercollegiate athletic conference with Harvard and its peers.
C: Harvard has no peers.
C: And that’s an idiotic name, Ivy League. Who coined it?
M: A sportswriter, I believe.
C: Figures. I detest collegiate sport, especially football. Barbaric. And the hooligans who play it. What a scourge on the academy. Have they done away with it yet?
M: Not exactly.
C: To me, exercising the intellect is far more important. I started the elective system, you know.
M: Yes, I know. And now we’ve taken that concept, a pragmatic extension of the curriculum, to a new level. Thanks to MOOCs, colleges are bringing courses to the masses, and often at no cost to the student.
C: Free courses? That’s truly preposterous. And who are these mooks you speak of?
M: MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course.
C: Another idiotic name. Why not Free University Course Content? Oh… never mind. And I won’t bother to ask you what online means.
M: Just as well.
C: Surely no reputable institutions are in this business.
M: Princeton, Penn, MIT, Stanford…
C: That upstart out West?
M: That’s the one. And Harvard.
C: Heresy. Harvard cannot allow just anyone to feed from its trough. We must maintain impeccable academic standards and grant entry to only the brightest minds. Consider the possible damage to our…
M: That ship has sailed. These days anyone can say they’re studying at Harvard, even though for now they won’t be getting degrees. Or even course credits. Again, for now.
C: (gulping martini…)
M: Of course, employers know the difference. Saying “I attended Harvard” doesn’t always mean the same thing.
C: It did in my day.
M: A lot has changed, Mr. President. You need to catch up on the last 90 or so years. Higher education is a different world. It’s more democratic and inclusive, but at the same time it’s even more selective than in your day. You’ll be pleased to know that Harvard routinely places first or second in U.S. News, a magazine that purports to rank colleges based on quality.
M: It doesn’t mean much to those ranked near the top, but the wannabes make a big deal out of it.
C: You’ve lost me.
M: Places like Harvard don’t worry about attracting the best and brightest.
C: Except that these MOOCs will attract all form of cretins who wish to suckle from Harvard’s teat in a shameless attempt to profit from our good name.
M: I…um…wouldn’t exactly put it that way.
C: So you approve of these MOOCs, do you?
M: Let’s just say I’m in favor of expanding educational opportunity, and that I doubt the reputation of places like Harvard will suffer as a result. At least not yet. If elite institutions start making relatively cheap degrees available to anyone with a computer, I might change my mind.
C: Computer, MOOCs, online, women presidents. It is all very perplexing. I suppose you will next tell me that we no longer require literacy in Greek and Latin for college entrance.
M: Let’s get another drink, Mr. President. This might take a while.
Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This is the latest installment of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.