What we lose when we teach—and learn—online

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

After Covid-19, some things will never be the same. Many parts of society will undergo what the early 20th-century economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” where sclerotic structures and outdated habits are rudely dispatched. For many in higher education, this means a bold new future: online learning.

In March, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson crowed, “The charade is exposed.” That is, a university education can be delivered “in an entirely different way. You don’t have to drive to campus, buy textbooks, pay for room and board in order to get an education. You can do the whole thing online.” Mr. Carlson’s optimism was matched by the political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter, who wrote in The New York Times that universities “will be surprised to discover that online teaching can actually be better than physical classrooms.”

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Zoom is a poor substitute for the physical classroom, where peers can look each other in the eye and convey their points with full intensity or emotion.

They are wrong. Universities must not rush into reforms that dismiss what is unique and essential to the experience they offer—or should offer. They are not mere means to transfer information; they also provide the moral and political training that teaches young people what it means to be part of a democracy and civil society.

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The pandemic has forced me to convene my seminar classes on Zoom. My students appear at the appointed hour, their faces in neat boxes on the edge of my computer screen, and we forge ahead as best we can. Conversation is stilted, however, and hardly so free-flowing as when we could meet in person. This is a poor substitute for the physical classroom, where peers can look each other in the eye and convey their points with full intensity or emotion.

This experience has made me appreciate John Dewey’s claim that the principal value of schooling is socialization. The school, in his view, is community writ small; it provides intensive practice in what it means to be part of a community, and students learn the talents and challenges and habits that successful community life entails. For these reasons, Dewey concluded, schools play a central role in developing democratic citizens.

Ideally, universities serve this democratic purpose better than any other level of education. In the college classroom, where professors encourage incisive reflection and debate about sensitive or controversial topics, students learn to interact in crucial ways. Among peers from varying backgrounds, social milieus, income brackets, races, religions, regions and nations, students negotiate all manner of disagreements and disputes, and learn to cooperate and communicate.

Unfortunately, many students in my Zoom classes turn off their cameras, hiding their faces and muting their voices. How “present” are they? I can never tell. To me, online learning fails a central principle of Jesuit educationcura personalis, or care for the whole person. This principle was instilled in me as an undergraduate, then in my first teaching job at Boston College. But how am I to attend to the whole of the person if I see only part of them?

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Digital platforms allow us to show as much or as little of ourselves as we like. They effectively allow us to retreat, but the whole point of the college classroom is that you cannot retreat. That is, you learn how to present yourself in public and also develop the courage to explore ideas and challenge opinions.

It seems ludicrous to expand the pedagogical role of digital media when their destructive impact on political discourse is widely recognized.

These skills depend on the nuances of communication, like vocal tone, facial expression and physical mannerisms—how you stand, how you tilt your head and hold someone’s gaze, whether you fiddle with their fingers or perspire. Digital media fail to capture all this, and so we fail to read people accurately. This misreading can sow much conflict and discord.

Indeed, it seems ludicrous to expand the pedagogical role of digital media when their destructive impact on political discourse is widely recognized. Social media are designed to deliver short, simple, monochromatic missives—which must be outrageous and eye-catching to rise above the din. Zoom is little better: Conversation is halting and laborious, and it is too difficult to explain nuanced positions while keeping people’s attention. Digital media make it too easy to insult or offend and then walk away (or close the computer). Digital citizens become more entrenched in their opinions, less likely to reach out and build bridges.

Philosophers have long argued that the key to defusing destructive emotions—like anger, hatred, fear or envy—is to see people as three-dimensional entities, with complex backgrounds and motivations. Humans are too often inclined not to do so. We tend to see people too simply, their actions “free,” as Spinoza put it, wholly self-determined and cut off from a chain of determining causes. But the more we understand or imagine those long chains of causes, Spinoza argued, the less angry we are at perceived offenses. And this clears the way for productive interaction. The goal is to grasp, as far as possible, the context of people’s actions and words—or simply the fact that there is a broader context. This makes for empathy.

In online interactions, we hardly glimpse this context. We are also accustomed to, and demand, immediate responses, which generally rules out careful premeditation.

Digital platforms can enhance the classroom experience when used judiciously. Zoom is useful for impromptu, one-on-one meetings with students when they are immersed in the writing process and are faced with a complicated question—requiring a complicated answer. And universities can be forgiven for using digital media to make it through these extraordinary and trying times. But online learning should not be more than a temporary measure. It cannot eclipse what is unique to the university experience.

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