Donald Eastman

The limits of online learning

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By DONALD R. EASTMAN III

Special to the Times

We live in a time of arrant silliness, if not outright ignorance, about what higher education really is. We live in a time when the governor of Texas has tried to fund the great public universities of his state by assessing the worth of each professor, according to his or her credit-hour and research dollar "productivity," as if colleges were factories or cattle farms. And now we see the governor of our own state emulating the shameful numerological philistinism of Texas politics.

That arrant silliness extends also to those who pretend, because it is financially advantageous for them to pretend, that traditionally aged college students learn just as well online as in class. For those who actually work with 18- to 22-year-olds, the growing myth about online learning is the ultimate example of the emperor with no clothes.

To be sure, online learning has its place. But for most students, it is a last resort. For those who have no other options, who cannot get to a classroom because of time or distance barriers, online instruction has to suffice, and thank goodness for it. Adult students who simply have neither the time nor the scheduling flexibility to attend classes are understandably the primary users of online course work.

Increasingly, however, public universities expect traditionally aged students to take online courses because of lack of space. This year the Florida Legislature passed the Digital Learning Now Act, which mandates that all high school students take at least one class online to graduate — as if high school students need to be required to use the Internet!

But what works best for most students is to be in a supportive classroom environment with a relatively small group of peers where a respected authority exhibits passion for and deep understanding of his or her subject and of the unique needs and abilities of learners.

Most students do not make an objective, unemotional calculation about what to learn in college. Rather, students fall in love with the methodology, the mystery and the beauty of a subject or the challenge of mastering something new. Learning even at a high level is engaged and transactional, fully involving the emotions at least as much as the intellect.

A great teacher in full flight is a spellbinding revealer of mysteries — not simply because he or she knows things we don't, but because a gifted teacher reads the audience the way a comedian or an actor or a politician reads the room or the way a general reads the battlefield — and continually shifts and revises what is emphasized and the language, illustrations and metaphors that help students learn and help students learn to think. Great teachers often use our classmates as teaching aides, acknowledging that students sometimes learn best from each other in their own vernacular.

Undoubtedly, the classroom experience can be significantly enriched by information technology. Effective teachers use, and have always used, every tool at their command to support their work and their students' understanding.

Most of us are not effective autodidacts. Most of us cannot and would not assemble a college education, let alone a degree worthy of the name, if we were given total access for six years to all the libraries and websites of the world. We need mentors who provide guidance and support and who stimulate and encourage us through meaningful interactions. We need peers and exemplars, collaborators and competitors, inspiration and incubation in order to translate information into knowledge and knowledge into deep and lasting learning. Until we learn how to learn difficult things, which is primarily what college is — or should be — about, few of us have the discipline and skill to get there on our own — or online.

There are dark days ahead, I fear, for higher education in Florida and the nation, as politicians and others look for ways to make education quicker and easier and cheaper.

Donald R. Eastman III is president of Eckerd College, a private liberal arts college in St. Petersburg.

The limits of online learning 09/12/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 15, 2011 3:35pm]

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