Online Higher Education's Individualist Fallacy
Champions of distance learning ignore the role that institutional culture and the classroom dynamic play in how people learn, writes Johann Neem.
There has been much talk of the “online revolution” in higher education. While there is a place for online education, some of its boosters anticipate displacing the traditional campus altogether. A close reading of their arguments, however, makes clear that many share what might be called the “individualist fallacy,” both in their understanding of how students learn and how professors teach.
Of course, individualism has a long, noble heritage in American history. From the “age of the self-made man” onward, we have valued those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But, as Warren Buffett has made clear, even the most successful individuals depend heavily on the cultural, economic, legal, political, and social contexts in which they act. This is as true for Buffett as it is for other so-called self-made men as Bill Gates. And it is certainly true for students.
But many advocates of online learning ignore this simple point. The economist Richard Vedder, for example, believes that being on campus is only useful for “making friends, partying, drinking, and having sex.” Anya Kamenetz, in her book DIY U, celebrates the day when individuals are liberated from the constraints of physical campuses, while Gates anticipates that “five years from now on the Web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”
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These advocates of online higher education forget the importance of institutional culture in shaping how people learn. College is about more than accessing information; it’s about developing an attitude toward knowledge.
There is a difference between being on a campus with other students and teachers committed to learning and sitting at home. Learning, like religion, is a social experience. Context matters. No matter how much we might learn about God and our obligations from the Web, it is by going to church and being surrounded by other congregants engaged in similar questions, under the guidance of a thoughtful, caring pastor, that we really change. Conversion is social, and so is learning.
Like all adults, students will pursue many activities during their time on campus, but what distinguishes a college is that it embodies ideals distinct from the rest of students’ lives. If we take college seriously, we need people to spend time in such places so that they will leave different than when they entered.
Some argue that large lecture courses make a mockery of the above claims. Admittedly, in a better world, there would be no large lecture courses. Still, this argument misleads for several reasons. First, it generalizes from one kind of course, ignoring the smaller class sizes at community colleges and the upper-division courses in which students interact closely with each other and their professors. Second, it dismisses the energy of being in a classroom, even a large one, with real people when compared to being on our own. Even in large classes, good teachers push their students to think by asking probing questions, modeling curiosity, and adapting to the class’s needs. Finally, it disregards the importance of the broader campus context in which all classes, large and small, take place.
The goal of bringing students to campus for several years is to immerse them in an environment in which learning is the highest value, something online environments, no matter how interactive, cannot simulate. Real learning is hard; it requires students to trust each other and their teachers. In other words, it depends on relationships. This is particularly important for the liberal arts.
Of course, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s recent study Academically Adrift makes clear, there are great variations in what college students are learning. All too often, higher education does not fulfill our aspirations. But none of the problems Arum and Roksa identify are ones that online higher education would solve. As Arum and Roksa make clear, students learn more on campuses where learning is valued and expectations are high. If anything, we need to pay more attention to institutional culture because it matters so much.
This does not mean that we should reject technology when it can further learning, as in new computer programs that help diagnose students’ specific stumbling blocks. But computers will never replace the inspiring, often unexpected, conversations that happen among students and between students and teachers on campuses. Because computers are not interpretive moral beings, they cannot evaluate assignments in which students are asked to reflect on complicated ideas or come up with new ones, especially concerning moral questions. Fundamentally, computers cannot cultivate curiosity because machines are not curious.
Technology is a tool, not an end in itself. As the computer scientist Jaron Lanier has written in his book You Are Not A Gadget, computers exist to support human endeavors, not the other way around. Many techno-utopists proclaim that computers are becoming smarter, more human, but Lanier wonders whether that is because we tend to reduce our human horizons to interact with our machines. This certainly is one of the dangers of online higher education.
The individualist fallacy applies not just to online advocates’ understandings of students, but also their conception of what makes great teachers and scholars. Vedder, for example, echoes Gates in his hope that someday there will be a Wikipedia University, or that the Gates Foundation will start a university in which a few “star professors” are paid to teach thousands of students across the nation and world. Of course, this has been happening since the invention of cassette tapes that offer “the great courses.” This is hardly innovative, nor does it a college education make.
Vedder ignores how star professors become great. How do they know what to teach and to write? Their success, like Buffett’s, is social: they converse with and read and rely on the work of hundreds, even thousands, of other scholars. Read their articles and books, listen to their lectures, and you can discern how deeply influenced and how dependent they are on the work of their peers. In short, there would be no star professors absent an academy of scholars committed to research.
Schools like the online, Gates Foundation-funded Western Governors University free-ride off the expensive, quality research completed by traditional professors when they rely on open course ware and curricula. Take away the professors, and many online schools will teach material that is out of date or inaccurate or, worse, hand control over to other entities who are not interested in promoting the truth -- from textbook companies seeking to maximize sales to coal and pharmaceutical companies offering their own curriculums for “free.”
The Web and new technologies are great tools; they have made more information more accessible to more people. This is to be celebrated. Citizens in a democracy should be able to access as much information as freely as possible. A democratic society cannot allow scholars, or anyone else, to be the gatekeepers to knowledge.
Certainly, we will expand online higher education, if for no other reason than because wealthy foundations like Gates and ambitious for-profit entities are putting their money and power behind it. For certain students, especially working adults pursuing clearly defined vocational programs rather than a liberal arts education, online programs may allow opportunities that they would have otherwise foregone. But online higher education will never replace, much less replicate, what happens on college campuses.
Even as we expand online, therefore, we must deepen our commitment to those institutions that cultivate a love of learning in their students, focus on the liberal arts, and produce the knowledge that online and offline teaching requires.
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