Online education is complementary to classical education: academic

TEHRAN, Sept. 18 (MNA) - Professor Nancy Bauer says online education has provided new opportunities for education, acting as a complementary to classical education.

“This extension of educational opportunities to huge numbers of people who might otherwise not have had them cannot but be a good thing,” Bauer, a professor of philosophy in Tufts University, told the Mehr News Agency.


Following is the text of the interview:

Q: The new academic term will begin in the next weeks. This is a reason for thinking again about the nature of education in our era. Do you think online education can or should replace traditional education or that these two methods can be combined?

A: The question of the relationship between online education and the traditional, in-the-classroom experience ought to be a pressing and vexed one for teachers in all educational settings. But it needs to be especially urgent for university educators.

The cost of operating traditional post-secondary schools is steadily rising. Tuition and room and board fees at many elite four-year colleges and universities in the United States now routinely total more than $200,000. So the online-only education option is bound to look more and more attractive to all but the most well-heeled families. Like many university professors, I think that something very important is lost when students and teachers never encounter one another except in virtual space. But unless we can make vivid the value of the on-campus experience, and unless we can both bring down the cost of this experience and make sure it includes the best online resources available, I fear that traditional education is going to be more and more on the defensive.

There is no doubt that online education is a splendid, virtually miraculous thing for lots of people. The degrees that were once available and affordable only to those with plenty of time and money and, often, the ability to relocate to a bricks-and-mortar school, can now be earned on the internet from any location in the world at a person’s convenience, often for a small fraction of the cost of the traditional classroom experience. This extension of educational opportunities to huge numbers of people who might otherwise not have had them cannot but be a good thing.

Even within the world of traditional education, there are undeniably wonderful things about online teaching and learning. I’ve found that one of the best—and most paradoxical—things about online education is the way it expands opportunities for student participation in a course. For many people, speaking up in a class is a daunting prospect. Students are often convinced that their questions or comments will betray their own ignorance about a subject and brand them forever as not worth listening to. When students make contributions to online discussions, however, they are almost invariably much freer in their self-expression, no doubt because so much of their day-to-day internet experience consists in chatting with others and posting comments. It’s much easier for a teacher to moderate a lively, productive online discussion among students than it is to manage face-to-face classroom discussion. In my undergraduate classes, I now in fact often require students to participate in online discussion on the reading assignments before we discuss them in class. The range of students subsequently participating in our in-class discussions, and the quality of the discussion, are certainly higher than they used to be.

And there is more. Colleagues of mine who have taught online-only courses report that their virtual office hours are often more interesting and productive than their on-campus ones. Because they save time preparing themselves for and commuting to school, online-only teachers often have the time and motivation to devote two or three times the number of hours they would have spent in face-to-face discussion to group and one-on-one live chat sessions with their students.

Alas, traditional education still isn’t quite up to speed when it comes to using the internet. It’s natural for university students, who typically have grown up spending huge amounts of time on sophisticated, highly interactive websites such as Facebook and YouTube, to expect their online course experience to be state-of-the-art. Teachers who teach primarily in the classroom often can’t or are reluctant to deliver this experience to their students. (My university—one of the very expensive elite ones—still uses a student-teacher online communication interface last updated in 1997) I think there’s a serious danger that as the gap widens between the excitement and power of online education tools and the constraints of the traditional classroom experience, students will be tempted more and more to learn from the screen—especially when, at least in the United States, some of the more elite private universities are charging more than $50,000 per year for undergraduate education.

I use the word “danger” here because, despite the undeniable benefits of online education, I think that face-to-face interaction between and among teachers and students is a vital part of the educational experience. And this is true whether what is being taught is physics or flower-arranging. What’s missing in the online experience is the same thing that would be gone if a bunch of friends watched a movie each in the privacy of his or her own home while simultaneously videoconferencing, or if a couple ended a relationship via IM. The same vulnerability that can make an in-person office hours chat or an in-class discussion challenging in various ways also creates opportunities for intellectual intimacy that are simply unavailable online. You can’t hide behind a virtual avatar when you’re on campus.

I feel that my job as a teacher is not only to impart information or even methods of thinking or inquiry to my students. It’s also to model for them, in person, what it looks like to take a passionate interest in your own interests, to follow out an intuition to wherever it leads you, even if that’s a dead end—to eat humble pie in public, if need be, and to pick yourself up and move on in humility, or, sometimes, in the wake of humiliation. The way any given in-class session of mine goes often turns on my noticing subtle signs of confusion or disagreement in my students’ miens and adjusting accordingly. I’m not sure that I could ever take an accurate temperature of a virtual classroom. And that’s why I believe taht, since online education is here to stay, and as the cost of traditional education continues to climb, we educators absolutely must think seriously about the value of what we are doing and develop new ways to make the face-to-face experience accessible and affordable to our students. Otherwise, traditional education as we know it may be headed for extinction.

Nancy Bauer is associate professor of philosophy at the department of philosophy in Tufts University. Bauer specializes feminism and feminist philosophy; continental philosophy, especially 19th-century German and 20th-century French, philosophy and film. She is author of “Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism”.

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