You can’t learn life’s most important lessons in an online classroom

What lessons are lost in schools for one?
What lessons are lost in schools for one?
Image: AP Photo/Vincent Yu
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Would you rather attend a local live concert with music performed by a fine, amateur orchestra, or listen to a masterful rendition of the same music recorded by a world-renowned musician? That was the question a colleague posed to me recently as we were debating the merits of online education.

Conversations on the academic front have been running along several lines lately, one of them about the number of prestigious universities and colleges, including Stanford and MIT, involved in promising models for online education that could have worldwide impact. An expansion of this initiative by dozens of public universities in the US is now underway which would result in for-credit massive open online courses, or MOOCs, being offered to takers anywhere in the world. In a recent piece in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman waxes rhapsodic about the potential for such initiatives to have a global effect.

Meanwhile, here in the US parents and educators alike worry that the conventional model for higher education is vastly overpriced. Critics argue that the liberal arts model may be an expensive anachronism, and others observe that the lives of entrepreneurial heroes such as Steve Jobs suggest that accomplished and creative high school students may be better off avoiding formal post-secondary school studies altogether.

These are pressing issues right now, as thousands of high school seniors across the country will be faced with making some important educational decisions come early spring. As a faculty member at one of the so-called “elite” institutions, and as the mother of a university sophomore and high-school senior, all of these issues hit close to home—and I believe they intersect.

What about a future in which all students enroll online, creating a personalized plan of study from courses that cover a vast array of subjects delivered by the country’s—or the world’s—best lecturers? Such a model could have tremendous flexibility;  it could accommodate budding entrepreneurs as well as would-be philosophers, economists, and scientists.

Academic institutions would survive as a home to scholarly work and graduate studies, serving as sites where monitored exams could be delivered so that students could qualify for online credit. Faculty who were not among the lecturing elite could be pressed into service as online leaders of smaller guided-study sections, and office-hour hosts. No need for universities or colleges to compete to provide the best dorms, gyms, or dining halls, nor for the vast array of student services that now exist on every campus.

But what about the benefits of interaction in real time that comes with in-person classes? Efforts to replicate this are under way; for example, imagine the possibility of students being able to raise an “electronic hand” during online study sections, video chat during online office hours, and join in online student study groups? Even science labs could potentially be replaced with interactive video demonstrations.

Even accounting for the enormous resources that would be needed to create such an interactive structure—to say nothing of the negotiations to coordinate such efforts—surely the result would be a more egalitarian and accessible model for undergraduate study.  And once the issues of cost and flexibility have been addressed, it becomes less relevant to question the utility of including the spread of courses that make up a liberal arts curriculum.

This is where, as a professor and a parent, I am supposed to dismiss this as a dystopian view of the future of education. However, I don’t think that our choices are so simple. The picture I present does have some potential—but it is not at all egalitarian. Some version of this scenario may well be the best possible outcome for large numbers of students around the world who do not have the background, economic resources, or physical proximity, to avail themselves of the best of what our current system has to offer.  And faced with a choice between these future citizens of the world being undereducated or cybereducated, the latter route represents a tremendous advance.

Here in the US, although we are now grappling with the demoralizing and destructive effects of growing inequity, we are still a resource-rich country.  Many our students will, for the time being, continue to reap the enormous benefits that accrue to those who learn in person, in real-time, on university and college campuses. Chief among these benefits is the opportunity to be an integral part of a community whose primary focus is learning.

As a professor of chemistry and a scientific researcher, my professional life is spent learning—even as I teach.  The energy and excitement that animates a campus is generated by the creation, accrual and sharing of knowledge among a community of learners.  Only part of that occurs in organized and predictable gatherings.  The sparks come from interactions that are informal and unplanned, motivated by a shared desire to solve a problem, or argue a point, or develop a nascent idea.  The intellectual skills our students acquire are coupled to the social interactions that our academic institutions nurture. So, while the current university model may not be financially sustainable in its entirety, and while online learning will surely find a place, we should jealously protect the creative and collaborative realm that our most effective academic institutions represent.

Live amateur concert versus a masterful recording? I think the answer is easy: I would rather experience the live concert in the company of my friends; I can enjoy the recording at home, alone