1. Opinion

Online education no substitute for the real thing

Published Feb. 11, 2012

A recent White House gathering of university presidents concluded with the predictable pronouncement by Education Secretary Arne Duncan that "higher education must change its way of doing business because it has become unaffordable for too many Americans." President Barack Obama made the same point in his recent State of the Union speech and at the University of Michigan a day later, even suggesting — in one of the most politically pandering acts of his administration — that colleges should publish the salaries of their graduates as an indication of the quality of the education they received. • The subtext here is clear and foreboding: The U.S. Education Department has developed a mandate to reduce college costs by making online courses and part-time teachers mainstream elements of a college education. • The secretary is right about one thing: These changes would save money. But they each also simplify and cheapen the intricacy and quality of first-rate undergraduate education.

Despite what Duncan and the current crop of experts are saying — so often that increasing numbers of people believe it — an online education and part-time teachers are no substitutes for full-time professors and good classmates for traditionally aged college students. The best use of the new technology, fabulous as it is, is not in lieu of the classroom, but in the classroom, and good professors employ technology in supportive ways all the time.

There is no doubt that higher education can be expensive. The question is: compared to what? The more personalized, the more rigorous, the more supportive the undergraduate experience is, the more expensive it will be. No question.

How expensive is it? The latest Education Department data tell us the average undergraduate student who borrowed money for college owes $25,500 in debt upon graduation. That is a lot of money, to be sure, but it is also the price of a relatively inexpensive car. Which is a better investment in a student's future?

Parents and students interested in a first-rate education recognize that an excellent undergraduate education is expensive, and they are quite right to expect colleges and government to show that they, too, are concerned about costs. Colleges indicate this, or not, by providing access to academic scholarships, financial aid, subsidized loans, work-study and student employment. States indicate this concern by offering programs like the Florida Prepaid College Plan (which guarantees tuition at constant dollars) and merit- and need-based scholarships. As with any business, the proof is in the bottom line: Colleges either have enough students to pay the freight for what they offer, or they don't — in which case they will and should close up shop. Affordability is in the eye of the customer, not in the domain of a White House threatening price controls.

The Obama administration seems to have forgotten what the world of undergraduate education is really like. The majority of college undergraduates are young people, 18 to 24 years old, who are at least as engaged in learning to become adults as in learning particular subjects, and whose parents (who are mostly paying for their educations) are more concerned about whether they are learning how to be responsible young adults who make good decisions than whether they major in anthropology or physics or accounting.

Most of them require personal, often individualized, attention to achieve their potential. They require the full range of human contact — intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual — with their fellow students and their teachers. They benefit most from participating in learning communities, in which they live, study and socialize with other learners.

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Young people learn from each other as much or more than they learn from teachers. They inspire each other, encourage (and occasionally discourage) each other. Their shared experience of the work of studying and the promise of shared social experiences give them energy and focus and inspiration.

Young people, in addition to learning the skills and traits needed to move from dependence to independence, require individual encouragement, coaching, support and correction, course by course, paper by paper, day by day. Writers and baseball players, math whizzes and management majors all need the experience of other people like themselves in order to stretch into becoming what they are truly capable of. This does not happen online, no matter how sophisticated Google's anticipating algorithms are.

The most important quality to be developed in each course, indeed in the whole of a college education, is the capacity and ability to learn. In Reflections on the Human Condition, Eric Hoffer wrote, "In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." In the increasingly complex and competitive economy of the 21st century, sending young people out to find good jobs and run cities and states and countries without a well developed ability to learn at a high level is a sure recipe for personal and professional disaster.

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


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