The recent kerfluffle at the University of Virginia got me thinking more about online education. Supposedly one of the driving issues was the adoption of online courses– key board members wanted UVA to join Harvard, MIT, Stanford, the University of Washington and others in offering MOOCs (massive open online courses). People outside the education world see online education as a way to efficiently deliver the ‘product’– education– while reducing the ‘overhead’– faculty and face to face interaction.
As a former teacher, I have to admit that I’m not as enchanted with this idea as others are. Learning requires more than information. It’s a full-body experience. Think of the last time you had an a-ha moment– there’s a physical rush, isn’t there? And before that moment, there’s lots of brow furrowing and hard thinking and uncertainty and nose wrinkling– all physical experiences. A good teacher doesn’t just evaluate dry test scores to determine whether their students are learning. You are reading body language and picking up non-verbal cues constantly. Turning to online education so emphatically ignores the fact that education is about a lot more than the overhead of teaching. It’s about the experience of learning.
That said, technology definitely has a place in education. Technology provides us with previously unimaginable tools to improve productivity, simplify clerical tasks and make evaluation more transparent. But let’s approach technology’s educational applications with care and thought. It’s not a magic cure all. Humans are still hugely complex and teaching is an art because some parts of it truly are magical (teachers get a rush from students’ a-has, too!). Technology can’t replace personal alchemy. That must remain gloriously, happily inefficient.