A Defense of In-Person Education

Jane Arnold is enrolled in an online doctoral program, but wants to be sure higher education preserves the traditional classroom.

September 8, 2008

My dear friend Ina Jackson used to say, “Jane, we need to begin working those online courses. That’s the next thing they’re going to want.” I would reply, “Ina, I teach because I like people. When I can’t work with people any more, I’ll do something else.” What I did, in fact, was become certified to teach Orton-Gillingham, the intensive one-to-one method of teaching dyslexics to read that is the foundation of every contemporary phonetic reading program. It can’t be done online.

Obviously, online courses are a fine option for a lot of reasons. In fact, I’m enrolled in an online Ph.D. program right now because I don’t want to drive an hour each way to take classes at the nearest place offering a Ph.D. in my discipline. It doesn’t have a program that I’m interested in, either. So I’m glad online education is available.

As I work through the courses, though, I run into that irritating American love affair with the new. People keep posting discussions about how wonderful online courses are and what must be wrong with all those people who aren’t taking them. And I’m finding the assumption is that, of course, we are all planning to teach online ourselves. (It’s an education Ph.D.)

No, I’m not. I like people. And the more I participate in online learning, the more I understand why this is a good option for some people and a disastrous option for others. Unfortunately, our educational history is to attack the status quo and club it to death with the new. I am not the only person who remembers clearly how proud I was to be able to read, “Run, Spot, run!” No, I was not bored. I was thrilled that I could read this all by myself. And no grownup had ever read it to me, either! (No grownup would be such a fool.) Of course I didn’t go on reading Dick and Jane for very long. But someone with a Ph.D. in education decided those books bored 50 percent of the children, so the 50 percent I belonged to lost out. Kids don’t read Dick and Jane anymore. I’m worried that our infatuation with online learning will similarly get out of hand, making in-person courses difficult to find.

We all know about the time management and self-discipline issues that make online learning hard for some people. However, online learning won’t work for everyone for more reasons than those.

I work in a rural area where many of my students can’t afford computers. Some can’t afford an Internet hookup, and some, who have an Internet hookup, keep having it cut off for non-payment of bills. In the late ‘80s, my friend Molly was furious that her high school son’s class was told that no one could be an honors student who didn’t have a computer. If we insist everyone must own computers and take online courses, we’re pushing the people who most need education even further down the ladder.

Moreover, when you live in the North Country and are at the mercy of the National Grid, you can’t count on the electricity, especially in the winter. When the local weather is bad, the local schools close and the teachers know what’s going on. However, the headquarters of my online university are over 1,000 miles away. They don’t know what’s happening here, and if I lose electricity for 3 or 4 days (not unheard of), I can’t let them know. I can’t even get into the site to do my homework.

Some people can’t type. Responding to at least four discussions a week, in addition to homework, is hard enough for someone like me who types 100 words a minute; I can’t imagine doing it if I had to hunt and peck. Furthermore, students more proficient in speaking than writing really lose in online courses. The entire emphasis is on what they do poorly, with no chance to show what they do well.

In fact, with all the attention paid to Howard Gardner’s intelligences, I don’t understand why we insist that everyone be taught by a standard method and be measured by a single standard, regardless of the learning context or medium. The problem is more acute with online learning because the hyperlinks are immutable. Translation: you can’t (legally) change how the Web site is put together, and if your mind doesn’t work the way that programmer’s mind works, you’re in trouble. When you give me a textbook, I can open it at the back, the front, or the middle. I can rip out pages, if I want; I can write in it; I can read the titles and sub-titles, I can manipulate it. I can’t manipulate those hyperlinks -- I have to follow them the way the programmer laid them down. Even the instructor can’t change the links, which is why several of us did an assignment on the syllabus that the instructor canceled but can’t delete. He assumed that if it wasn’t listed in the turn-in section, we’d know it wasn’t due. While some people find that online courses present the ultimate in flexible tools, others, like me, find hyperlinks confining.

Different minds process differently. My training has taught me a lot about how different minds process information. I once had the great privilege of teaching a dyslexic young man to read. He described to me how he can visualize and manipulate images in his mind. “It’s easy,” he said. No wonder he’s so good at his job, which involves medical imaging devices. When he sees the pictorial result, he has a mental image of what it looks like in three dimensions and what changes will look like. I have no idea what he’s talking about. When I look at a road map, I see lines. In fact, I sometimes put the map down on the floor and stand on it to figure out whether to turn right or left. However, I can tell from the design of my online courses that the person who designed the hyperlinks has the kind of mind that plans by clustering bubbles. I don’t. I taught Brian to read in the way that worked with his mind, but the person who programmed my course links has no such option.

I remember people by their presence, not their names. I look at my gradebook from three semesters back and go, “Huh?” at the names, but I’ll run into a student and say, “Yes, I remember you. You were in my 101 three years ago in that awful basement room; you always sat under the window and you wrote that really interesting paper on military intelligence.” Online, all I see are names. We’re up to about 800 posts in the “discussion” section -- a lot of it is chit-chat -- so when I remember that I want to add something to what I said to someone last week, all I have is 25 names and 800 posts to scroll through. I can’t remember who said what, so I don’t bother.

An important feature of Orton-Gillingham is the emphasis on multi-sensory learning. It’s the hardest thing for most O-G tutors I know to practice, and the more I do it, the more I realize how important it is. “Uh!” I’ll say to a student I’m working with privately, as I double over with my arms across my stomach. “Uh! It’s the sound you make when you get hit in the stomach and you bend over and look just the like letter U that makes that sound.” One semester I could watch one of my dyslexic students gently touch his stomach every time he sounded out a new word with a short U. When I teach description in the winter, I bring in cinnamon sticks. “Shut your eyes and smell. Taste. Listen. Write down the words that come to your mind. Use all your senses.” (In the spring, we go outside and, like Ferdinand, smell the flowers.)

Online learning is uni-sensory. You look. Period. You’re not even required to read out loud, so the oral/aural component is missing. (“Read the assignment out loud,” I said to a student in the tutoring center of an assignment that appeared impossible. “Oh!” he said halfway through, having missed the essential clause when he read it silently.) They try to vary things with cute little videos with the canned speeches. Having sat in a classroom mesmerized by the words and actions of brilliant lecturers -- Helen Vendler, Margaret Miles, Elaine Scarry, Sol Gittelman, James Kugel -- I know those canned things have as much in common with teaching as cardboard has with a brick wall.

Online learning is a wonderful tool. It works well for some people. Some of us endure it. And for some, like my wonderful, dyslexic friend Lynn, who mourns the fact that she had no option but to take an online course and ruin her grade-point-average with a B-, it doesn’t work at all. When the time comes to enroll in a Ph.D. program, she’s planning to move to where she can attend classes because she knows exactly how she learns. Assuming, that is, that on-site classes are still available.


Jane Arnold is the reading specialist and assistant professor of English at Adirondack Community College.


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