College Guide


July 23, 2012 11:00 AM Lonely Online Classes

By Daniel Luzer

Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, writes the New York Times that while he’s always found the idea that he’s learning information from his students a little patronizing, there is, actually, an important relationship that he enjoys with those he is teaching.

That relationship is valid and meaningful and, ideally, each class he teaches is a unique event made up of both his lecture and his students’ interaction with that material. That can never happen online.

As he writes:

A large lecture class can also create genuine intellectual community. Students will always be running across others who are also enrolled, and they’ll break the ice with a chat about it and maybe they’ll go on from there. When a teacher hears a student say, “My friends and I are always arguing about your class,” he knows he’s doing something right. From there he folds what he has learned into his teaching, adjusting his course in a fluid and immediate way that the Internet professor cannot easily match.
Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who 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 particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.

Granted, learning can certainly still occur in such situations. And many real courses, especially large ones, are essentially an example of the same lecture that’s been delivered by the same professor for years and years. But such courses are an example of bad education.

But what Edmundson is trying to figure out is something crucial to evaluating the real quality of online education, both as it currently exists and as it has the potential to exist. Can online education be superior education? Can it ever be the best form of learning? No, it can’t. As Edmundson explains:

A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates. You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.

The fact that it’s lonely and sterile and intellectually joyless doesn’t mean it won’t happen, of course—there are too many people interested in making sure online education occurs—but there’s no reason for honest critics to pretend online college is just as good as the real thing. It isn’t, and it probably never can be.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Crissa on July 23, 2012 6:21 PM:

    I don't think it's appropriate to continue to pretend that traditional education is always collaborative or better than online education, either.

  • buddy66 on July 23, 2012 7:09 PM:

    Hello? It's 2012...

    Skype, anyone? We're dancing face-to-face these days.

    Email ed is dead. R.I.P.

  • Kevin on July 23, 2012 7:11 PM:

    These pieces against online education always leave me bemused. I attended a large university where many intro courses had 400 students or more. It is laughable to say that you can get the kind of ideal experience described by Edmundson in such an environment. Even in smaller classes, we had instructors teaching the same lesson to 4(!) sections each day. Needless to say, the instructors gave tremendously uninteresting and unengaging lectures.

    There seems to be a conceit among liberal arts professors in the top-tier universities, that their situation is common. Huge class size, powerpoints, and rote memorization remain most students' experience in college, particularly in the sciences. In those cases, online courses work just as well or better. Then student don't have to waste time listening to a professor read a powerpoint. These professors are in the elite, and they are clueless about the experiences that occur outside their tiny departments at private universities.

  • Tim on July 23, 2012 7:51 PM:

    Edmundson's original article looked at a recorded course. No surprise that wasn't collaborative. What does that have to do with online courses? You need to see what the best online classes are about. They're collaborative, engaging and interactive. Even the most reticent student, who won't speak up in a live class, can take the time to write a post on the discussion board.

  • paul on July 23, 2012 9:04 PM:

    Anyone who thinks you can't have a collaboration between teachers and students online has never seen a decent discussion forum, methinks. It takes a different style, and usually a different schedule from lecture or seminar-based education, but it can make the best college exploration you ever participated in look shallow.

  • Steve P on July 24, 2012 12:18 AM:

    You'll always have the massive survey class, because the schools these days will always chose to hire another dean instead of another professor.

    But any campus worthy of tuition will have those little nests of activity where good teachers find avid students, and it's in those rooms that the college experience happens. The difference between those rooms and a discussion forum is the difference between reading a play and seeing it acted.

  • joejoejoe on July 24, 2012 8:16 AM:

    I've taken a ton of online classes and the student interaction in the best of them rises to the level of the worst of my live classes. Most teachers online are not expert in the software they are using to teach the class and are underpaid adjuncts. If you think they are going to kill themselves to create a sense of community among faceless students using flawed tools for $18 an hour you are kidding yourselves.

  • Quaker in a Basement on July 24, 2012 11:51 AM:

    Edmunson displays his ivory-towersim rather clearly. The learning experience is better for a student sitting in a giant lecture hall with 399 other seekers? Why? Because they breathe the same air as His Eminence?

    Edmunson equates "learning" with the pursuit of a degree. He really should get out more often. Working adults in today's economy are constantly engaged in learning and most of that learning doesn't happen in a classroom.

  • bigtuna on July 24, 2012 12:28 PM:

    I have taught, and observed, all sorts of online, live, etc. classes. Maybe we should figure that some classes will be ok to do on line - the big survey classes, etc. But I doubt that online delivery will ever be able to replace the higher end classes - of the sort needed to get engineering, science degrees, or the higher end stuff in writing, etc. So maybe the way to go is figure that lecturing to 400 in a room is no better than on line, so do that, and focus efforts of real people, with real interactions, for juniors and seniors.