The Trouble with Online Education

In the wake of Coursera announcing partnerships with twelve new universities, Mark Edmundson (author of Why Read?) has a fantastic op-ed in The New York Times. He argues that online educations tends to be a monologue rather than a dialogue. The Internet teacher, even the one who actively responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is the gist of the message:

We tend to think that the spellbinding lecturers we had in college survey classes were gifted actors who could strut and fret 50 amazing minutes on the stage. But I think that the best of those lecturers are highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this — tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it. Their every joke is a sounding. It’s a way of discerning who is out there on a given day.

A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. 

I absolutely agree. The best professors I’ve had in college were magicians in front of the stage: able to guess student’s emotions, and to tune their lecture accordingly. The corollary to the argument is that Internet courses can work, but it requires extremely motivated students to slog through the lectures. This motivation, arguably, is easier to find (and tune) in students who attend live lectures and interact with their professors.

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