The Lunacy of Online Hype

High Education


What is it about online education that evokes truly idiotic pronouncements from seemingly thoughtful people?

Despite the availability of superb training videos and simulators, no one who would suggest that mastering a sport could be done entirely online. Indeed, the notion that online learning could supplant sports training camps and coaches in, say, football or soccer seems so naive that it is hard to know where to begin to criticize it. You can repeatedly watch a video showing how to throw a football or head a soccer ball, but nearly everyone understands that timing and practice matter. It almost goes without saying that teamwork must be practiced, and that coaching and motivation matter. Competition with other teams and collaboration with teammates elicit better performance.  

So, why do so many seemingly rational individuals opine publicly and unembarrassedly that online education will result in the demise of traditional university campuses? Consider any academic discipline with which you are comfortable—dance, history, philosophy, sociology, mathematics, chemistry, whatever—and imagine trying to master and learn to use that discipline entirely online. Not impossible maybe, but as unlikely as learning to play football well entirely online.    

We humans are intensely social. We learn best from others, and in the presence of others. We get discouraged and need encouragement and coaching. Mastering any substantial concept—natural selection, oxidation-reduction, rate of change—requires practice and testing in different contexts. And we learn best when we are in an environment where others are learning and interested in the same thing. We learn from each other, and from unmediated interaction between student and student, and student and professor.  

All of this is common sense, well known to anyone who has ever taught or who has ever struggled to master something difficult.  

But the past also offers some pretty compelling guidance. Our oldest universities date to well before the printing press, which was invented in 1436. By 1500, printing presses had popped up all over Europe and produced more than 20 million books. Any person of that time could be forgiven for thinking that cheaper, easily available books would have put the fledgling universities out of business.

But they did not. Quite the contrary.

Universities developed libraries, and books became an essential part of the instruction. Just as with books, online education will be an important component in how we teach and how we learn, and will help make it possible to learn more, faster. But as long as we humans continue to enjoy others’ physical presence, high quality residential universities will be the places of choice for achieving high-level disciplinary mastery, and for learning work with and to understand others. Count on it.   

Donal O'Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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