Defending Online Learning, Part Two

In Part One of “Defending Online Learning,” published in this space last Tuesday, I presented the studies testifying that students who take all or part of their classes online perform better on average than those studying the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.

Online education also is making its presence increasingly felt at the K–12 level, leading education analysts Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn to predict that by 2019, 50 percent of all courses for grades 9–12 will be taken online — “the vast majority of them in blended-learning school environments with teachers, which will fundamentally move learning beyond the four walls and traditional arrangement of today’s all-too-familiar classroom.”

If their forecast proves even half-right, it is reasonable to expect that, in very short order, waves of online-educated, college-bound students will be comfortable with, will expect, and perhaps — given both its lower cost and instructional efficacy — will demand a similar mix of face-to-face and online education. 

This accelerating dynamic, coupled with the nation’s need for more workers with postsecondary credentials, constitutes nothing less than an irresistible force the effect of which cannot but radically transform public education at all levels. Increasingly, this transformation is being embraced by existing institutions. The latest Babson Survey Research Group study found that two-thirds of the 2,500-plus higher-education institutions it surveyed view online education as critical to their long-term education strategy.

#more#But the same study found that there “continues to be a consistent minority of academic leaders concerned that the quality of online instruction is not equal to courses delivered face-to-face.” For these critics, neither online learning’s lower costs nor its documented increases in learning outcomes settles the matter.  

A genuinely higher education, they aver, seeks an end superior to proficiency alone, an end the preeminence of which simultaneously aids in distinguishing vocational from liberal education, while enhancing both. Vocational education is oriented by what it enables students to learn to do; liberal education, by what it enables them to learn to be. Consistent with the fact that the word “liberal” in liberal education has the same root as the word, “liberty,” liberal education, properly understood, aims at preparing more than workers. It is, in addition, an education in and for liberty understood in its three highest senses — intellectual, moral, and political. According to this view, the development of the intellectual, moral, and political virtues takes place best in face-to-face interaction with others: Learning is not to be found simply in books, or on a Kindle, or on one’s laptop; it is to be found in face-to-face community. 

Accordingly, the fear of such critics is that online learning — necessarily more solitary than traditional, face-to-face learning — cannot help but exacerbate modern life’s atomizing tendencies, further undercutting community in a world already increasingly populated by, to use Allan Bloom’s phrase, “social solitaries.”

As I will show in the next installment in this series, online learning has been increasing its interactivity dramatically, and more of these enhancements can be expected in the near future. Therefore, this critique misses the mark to a degree that increases with each technological advance. Moreover, no defender of online learning posits it as suitable for every subject at every level. But a great swath of the curriculum can and has been taught well online. Here one need only think of the multitude of STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).   

Finally, regardless of the weight one attributes to it, this objection — which I’ve labeled “the loneliness of the long-distance learner” — comes too late. At least as far back as Aristotle’s day, it has been recognized that with progress comes an unavoidable loss of a certain “intimacy,” as he relates in The Politics when tracing the development of the first village out of the household, and that of the first city out of the village. The Attic Greek oikos, which translates as “household,” also carries the sense of “intimate” and “intimacy.” Each stage is less intimate, and necessarily so, than that which preceded it. Oikos also is the root of the word “economics,” which originally meant “the management of the household.” Consider the distance between the meaning of “economics” then versus now and you gain a better appreciation for the loss of intimacy concomitant with technological progress.

Viewing the matter in a related light, online education is a means — likely the only means — to the end of providing postsecondary education to greater numbers than ever before. The end of increasing postsecondary degrees is, in turn, a means to the end of providing a work force that can hope to compete successfully in our ever-more-competitive global marketplace. But the global marketplace is itself the product of our progress in information technology.  Each feeds on and, in turn, fosters the other. In vain, then, do we seek to arrest, much less reverse, what has come and is coming. Instead, prudence dictates that we embrace the utility and develop further the functionality of online education. The continued economic viability of the nation requires no less.

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