What We Lose When We Move Education Online￼
I just finished my fourth online class in a graduate TESOL program, and I’m left feeling empty. It was clear that the courses were constructed with professionalism and that the instructors cared about their students’ learning. Even so, the experience felt artificial to me. It’s not to say that I didn’t learn; rather, I didn’t engage, and no one engaged with me. Only one of my professors ever gave me any feedback on my work, aside from points, and even her comments were only brief words of praise. Never did any of my teachers engage with my ideas, or ask me questions, or get to know me as a person. This is not their fault. What else were they supposed to do, in a system that rewards efficiency and reduces education to discrete lesson plans attached to point-based assignments?
I suppose the engagement I was craving was there for me on the discussion boards, but to be honest, I never spent much time there. The point-based grading conditioned me to get in and get out, collecting my points for the required posts. I did notice that some of the other students seemed more authentically engaged and spent more time replying to other students. Why couldn’t I do the same?
For one, something about the structure of discussion boards in Canvas made me feel like I was speaking into the void. Was anyone out there, listening? Were we talking to each other, or were we just talking? On Canvas, there is no way to tag another person, so I never knew if anyone was reading my replies to others. As a result, it felt pointless to respond, except when it was required. Also, I experienced a feeling of sheer overwhelm when I opened the discussions. So many people talking all at once! It felt like a noisy, crowded room where I couldn’t hear myself think. In a live discussion, the conversation unfolds one comment at a time, with a clear connection between each comment. A skillful facilitator can help by building in brief periods of reflection or refocusing the conversation on an important question. The online discussions, in contrast, felt like utter chaos. It was exhausting to process the different points of view all at once, some comments responding to each other, many not.
And then there was the issue of points. As a general rule, points in education makes students focus on points. Points create the gamification of education where the goal is to put forth the least amount of work for the most points. Also, points put us in a performative mode, where we are doing what we think will impress the teacher, rather than doing what might lead to more learning, such as taking a risk or making a mistake. On the online discussion boards, much of the conversation felt false, as if we were all just doing a song and dance for the instructor, who would be dispensing points based on the “quality” of our interaction. In a live classroom where students talk in pairs or small groups, much of the conversation between students stays between students, and no one is evaluating it. Even in large-group discussions where the teacher is a participant, the students can speak more freely, knowing that their contributions will be heard rather than assigned a point value.
And this leads me to my real problem with online education. It feels more like a performance than an experience. A friend of mine who is an online teacher used the word “transactional” to describe online education. The students are trading their performance for points. If they collect the points they think they’re owed, they are satisfied and move on. But I don’t think they are truly changed. They never get the experience of a teacher asking a challenging question just at the right moment. They don’t get to hear a student speak powerfully out of a desire to be heard. They don’t get to engage with other students privately, in a judgement-free space.
I’ve been told by my administration that online education is the future of college. “It’s what students want,” my new dean told me, and certainly the low enrollment numbers for my live classes were proof of this. It’s easy to see why online education is popular with students. Its key values are efficiency and convenience, prized values in a busy society. I’ve been tempted myself to teach fully online classes so I can avoid the soul-crushing SF Bay Area commute. But I feel like teaching online would crush my soul in a much more painful way. When I think that my life as a teacher would be reduced to reading and scoring online discussion posts, I feel my insides collapsing. I don’t know how those teachers do it. In the classroom, there is always the surprise and the vitality that comes from relationships. You never know what someone is going to say in any given moment. If your materials are intriguing, the conversation could go anywhere. A teacher’s role is so much broader than being the dispenser of points. We can be coaches in the moment. We can be witnesses. We can ask the hard questions. We can laugh with our students, gut-splitting laughter that cannot be encapsulated by an emoji.
In my live classes, I have made friends with my students. They have made friends with each other. I have seen students meet and later get married. I have seen lightbulbs turning on in students’ eyes. I have watched while conversations moved in fascinating and unexpected directions.
It’s not always good. There are days when we are all tired, when we wish we could just log into a portal and type something. Being a human with other humans can be exhausting, scary, messy, and unpredictable. After COVID, we’re all out of practice. It may be that we’re actually terrified to be with other people.
I don’t know how we heal from COVID. I don’t know how we heal from the mental health damage done by our devices. I don’t know how, as a society, we become less distracted, less anxious, less polarized. But I do know that online education is not the answer. Maybe traditional education isn’t the answer, either, but at least it offers us the hope of real connection, of exchanging views with another real-life human, while meeting eyes across a room.
Learning is not the accumulation of points or the accumulation of facts. Teaching is not the dispensing of points and information. The highest value in education should not be efficiency. Why are we selling this lie to our students and ourselves? In her book The Death of the American School System, Diane Ravitch defines the purpose of education, saying
We want to prepare [our students] for a useful life. We want them to be able to think for themselves when they are out in the world on their own. We want them to have good character and to make sound decisions about their lives, their work, and their health. We want them to face life’s joys and travails with courage and humor. We hope that they will be kind and compassionate in their dealings with others. We want them to have a sense of justice and fairness. We want them to understand our nation and our world and the challenges we face. We want them to be active, responsible citizens, prepared to think issues through carefully, to listen to differing views, and to reach decisions rationally. We want them to learn science and mathematics so they will understand the problems of modern life and participate in finding solutions.
Do we agree that these are valid goals? And do we think these goals can really be achieved online?
Are we really thinking critically about what education should be, now and in the era to come? Are we thinking about how it can help us cope better with our own lives and help solve the world’s problems? Or are we going through the motions and encouraging our students to do the same? I know that there are many honorable online teachers, some of whom are dear friends of mine, who approach online education with rigor and integrity. Perhaps they have a better answer for the future than I do.