In Praise of Old Ways
Learning requires two-way interactions that even the best online courses can’t provide.
Opinion By Mohamed Gad-el-Hak
In the award-winning film Educating Rita, a hairdresser decides to find herself by taking an Open University course. Her alcoholic English literature tutor, an aspiring poet in a failing marriage, becomes dismayed when his pupil’s earnest, impulsive reactions to prose evolve into the pretentious analytical approach he despises. This inspiring tale of self-discovery and empowerment highlights the value of a pedagogy that has fallen out of favor in the Internet age: one-on-one tutoring.
Personalized teaching has existed since the beginning of civilization. Lecture-based instruction commenced before the invention of the printing press. Correspondence education is about a century old, and online learning took off during the 2000s. Now massive open online courses (MOOCs) are transforming the delivery of education at such world-class institutions as Harvard.
Despite their global reach, do MOOCs represent a paradigm shift in teaching and learning? Or will they hinder the development of critical thinking skills in the sciences and humanities? This contrarian sides with Dorothy L. Sayers, the Oxford-educated novelist, who urged a return to the medieval university in an influential 1947 lecture entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Back then, she noted, the syllabus was divided into two parts: the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music). “We have lost the tools of learning — the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane — that were so adaptable to all tasks,” Sayers lamented, suggesting that we “presently” teach our children everything but how to learn.
Technology is undeniably a learning tool. Witness the number of journals, such as MOOCs Forum, Hybrid Pedagogy, and The Internet and Higher Education, devoted to online learning, teaching, and administration.
Humans are social beings, however, and learning is a social process. Both require interaction and relationships to flourish. In our digital, mobile society, on-site discussion forums remain the most effective tool for student-to-student and student-to-teacher interactions. Even in a large lecture hall, a good teacher can sense the students’ mood and receptivity and instantly adapt. Robust courses offer multiple opportunities for rich, spontaneous interactions among students and instructors. In a 2012 New York Times opinion piece, University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson likened a memorable nonvirtual course to a jazz composition: There is a basic melody to work with — as defined by the syllabus — but also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.
Acquiring knowledge is not the same as knowing what to do with it. Education is all about learning to analyze, evaluate, synthesize, collaborate, innovate, and communicate persuasively. MOOCs, by contrast, are like having a library at your disposal. They offer little beyond do-it-yourself learning gleaned from the Internet’s vast, one-way repository of information.
There are, of course, the fortunate few who possess the superior discipline, motivation, and intellect to make sense of the boundless information out there. To nurture learning and critical thinking, though, most students benefit from dialogue — which is personalized, labor-intensive, and expensive. While lecture-based instruction undoubtedly could be improved, MOOCs are no panacea to academia’s real or perceived pedagogical shortcomings. Would anyone want a physician or attorney taught the fundamentals of medicine or law solely via online courses? MOOCs can no more improve the learning process than texting and tweeting could produce the next Tennessee Williams.
While the Internet has changed and expanded our world, teachers — whether lecturing or tutoring — should not be replaced by machines. Dehumanizing education the way automation dehumanized factory workers won’t improve the institution’s productivity. No online course could come close to the magical experience described by Anna, the British schoolteacher in The King and I, when first “getting to know” her Siamese pupils: “It’s a very ancient saying/But a true and honest thought/That if you become a teacher/By your pupils you’ll be taught.” Call me old school, but this teacher is unabashedly laudator temporis acti.
Mohamed Gad-el-Hak is the Inez Caudill Eminent Professor of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.