Sunday, August 14, 2005

Simulating Spitballs: Inherent Flaws in Online Education

Today's front page SJ-R article on UIS's online program points to a continuing trend in education, and while there are many positives associated with this trend, there's a downside as well.

Online classes have certainly opened doors for many individuals whose locality or schedule makes pursuing a degree difficult. They might also serve to keep the costs of education down since technology is cheaper than maintaining or expanding the physical plant of a university to accommodate students.

Even though I live within a mile of UIS, I took my last two classes towards my Master's degree online. One of the classes was taught by a professor for whom I had previously completed in-class seminars, so it provided a fair test for measuring the merits of online learning versus that in a traditional classroom.

As a father of four young children with a full-time job, the chance to finish my degree without leaving home for weekly classroom sessions was a nice benefit.

Online classes also played to my strengths in the respect that I have always been uncomfortable with public speaking, but can express myself reasonably well in writing. I may have, had the entire degree program been available online, decided to go that route when I first enrolled. But taciturnity is not a personality trait to be abided, but a personality flaw to be overcome. Enrolling in seminars where I was required to give oral presentations was a challenge that I met and it continues to serve me well.

Communication online is at a lower level than is experienced in the classroom. Discussions aren't as lively nor are they as intellectually stimulating. Following the progression of a debate is much more difficult when it requires checking the time and dates of comments on an electronic message board. And lost is one of the great pleasures of a live seminar which allows you to watch people roll their eyes when a student with a history of speaking at length on topics unrelated to the class discussion sets off on another meaningless tangent.

Also lost is the opportunity to learn from a professor who is skilled at lecturing and orchestrating class discussions. Moderating a message board does not allow a professor to impart his knowledge and experience at a level equal to that that is experienced when standing in front of a classroom of students and interacting with them directly.

There is also the problem of disreputable online universities tainting the efforts of legitimate programs. Even as he was explaining the school's desire to make online degrees equal in value to those earned in the classroom, UIS Chancellor Richard Ringeisen helped further the perception that online programs are nothing more than diploma mills when he used the expression "stamp UIS on your forehead" to describe the conferring of a degree. It paints the image of an assembly line rather than a deep educational experience, as students are passed through a network much like a conveyor belt.

I'm not suggesting that the online classes at UIS are devoid of legitimate scholarly worth. They are certainly valuable in complementing any degree program. But a degree completed exclusively in this manner does seem somewhat less complete when the human interaction that takes place in a classroom and on campus is factored out.

Last evening I attended the 25-year reunion of the St. Aloysius Class of 1980. Seeing people who I attended school with for nine years, but some of whom I hadn't seen since, was a great experience and can be counted as one of the many long-term benefits of receiving a formal education. The camaraderie that is forged in a classroom is every bit as important in preparing a person to deal with life as the subjects that are taught. That camaraderie won't be given a chance to develop if the educational experience takes place exclusively in front of a computer monitor.

Online learning will eventually trickle down to the beginning years of education, bringing with it many potential benefits. The learning resources available on the Internet are already allowing more parents to choose home schooling when public schools are deemed undesirable and private schools prohibitive. While online learning is the wave of the future, we should hope that the traditional classroom remains in the mainstream so that are youth don't become social pariahs and class clowns aren't denied their proper venue. Emoticons will never replace the magic of a precisionly targeted spitball.

1 comment:

JeromeProphet said...

Thin screen displays as thin as wallpaper. Taking up an entire wall or two of your favorite at home in your study.

Imagine Internet II - yes, Internet II is in the development stages, with some Universities already connected to broadband connections that make what we have seem very slow.

Now imagine the virtual classroom.
Not just message boards, but video, and audio too. Multiple realtime streams from your classmates, and teachers.

Along with virtual whiteboards.

And this is the clincher...

In 3D display.

Not the silly glasses either.
Yup, it's already in prototype stage, and major japanese corporations are getting ready to roll on this.

Everything already exist to some degree - but it will gel in a decade or two.

And then what?