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What superstorm Sandy taught me about the failures of online learning (+video)

When hurricane Sandy closed my campus for a few days, my students and I had to conduct our course online. It was wholly inadequate. Online learning cannot – and should not – replace the real-time dialogue of the in-person classroom.

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At a time when colleges and universities are competing to see which can win the rankings wars and which can fund as many foreign campuses as possible, it is clear why online earning has such appeal. At its heart is a winner-take-all psychology. Get the best lecturer money can buy, hire a group of anonymous, poorly paid assistants (who cares if they even have Ph.D.s) to mark online papers, and you have a moneymaker that eliminates the need for low teacher-student ratios as well as dorms and deans.

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Harvard and MIT, which are offering edX, and Stanford, Princeton, Penn, Michigan, and Berkeley, which are offering Coursera (all for free), are giving online learning respectability, even as they cater to the students on their own campuses. But for these elite schools, online learning is just another way to push their brand and thus make more money. Even when they offer large lecture courses to hundreds of their own students, they offer them through a professor who is physically present and can take questions.

The real danger from the online fad is that politicians and voters will come to think online courses are good enough for the mass of students in their state (especially those in community colleges) and treat them as a silver bullet rather than a cost-efficient supplement to conventional teaching. As a result, the growing divide between America’s top schools and those charged with the higher education of most of the rest of the country will widen even further. 

In 1854 Charles Dickens warned against dehumanizing education in his classic novel, “Hard Times.” In Dickens’s story, an unfeeling schoolmaster, Thomas Gradgrind, chokes the life out of his pupils by insisting, “Facts alone are wanted in life.” But Gradgrind at least does his damage in person and finally acquires self-doubt. Today’s online-education advocates have managed to keep the joy and emotions of education at a distance Dickens did not begin to imagine, and still worse, on the whole, most show no sign of possessing an ounce of self-doubt.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of “Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.”


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