Log in, glaze over, tune out
One of the several bees who are long term residents in David Brooks’s bonnet is that a certain kind of love between teacher and student is what really spurs learning. Today’s iteration of the theme occurs when describing an experimental school called the New American Academy:
[I]t does a tremendous job of nurturing relationships. Since people learn from people they love, education is fundamentally about the relationship between a teacher and student. By insisting on constant informal contact and by preserving that contact year after year, The New American Academy has the potential to create richer, mentorlike or even familylike relationships for students who are not rich in those things.
This bee is an excellent one to have in his bonnet. It’s in mine, too. I know nothing about this specific school, and I’ve never taught younger kids. But in my experience, a great education indeed occurs with love between a teacher and student (not in the creepy Van Halen sort of way, which is, I hope, obvious).
When I think back on the teachers who genuinely changed the way I think, I loved them. Not in any intimate way. I never socialized with them. I knew next to nothing about their life outside the classroom, and they knew nothing of mine. But my feelings exceeded mere admiration – that these people could show me a world I didn’t know existed. I was excited to go to class. I wanted to learn how to think the way they thought and to know what they knew.
Another factor in a great learning experience that Brooks doesn’t focus on as much are the relationships that spring up between students. A few intellectually excited students can set a whole class on fire. My intro to philosophy class had 10 students, and my relationship with them, and an amazing teacher, is what got me into this lucrative business. It’s not coincidental that another of those 10 students from that class is now a philosophy professor.
And this is why I think the trend toward online college courses is seriously problematic.
I’ve taught many different types of classes, and have a lot of opinions about what makes for a good classroom environment. Over 200 students sucks. Teaching a class that meets a general freshman requirement is usually not pretty. Domineering students must be handled early. Having TAs is great come grading time but comes at the expense of an important connection with your students. Natural light and temperature control are actually quite relevant.
But nothing fundamentally alters the efficacy of education like online teaching. I’ve now taught two online classes (my university is encouraging them). While I absolutely love teaching in general, teaching online is a wretched experience which I pray never becomes the bulk of my job (should I be lucky enough to keep teaching philosophy).
I don’t know the students. As a result, I’m not nearly as motivated to do the grunt work of my job, i.e., grading. Instead of part of a conversation I have with a student, grading becomes wholly tedious. Their papers are noticeably worse, their understanding of the material suffers. An unusually high percentage just stop participating in the class. They don’t spark interests in each other. Interesting side discussions don’t get started as easily. I honestly can’t see a student coming out of an online class feeling as if their whole way of thinking had changed. My student evaluations dropped by about 20% from the usual numbers. I don’t know if that happens to others who teach offline and on, but I certainly feel more than 20% less effective. (I imagine some classes might be more amenable than others – in philosophy, logic might work better than, say, ethics.)
I’m teaching a particularly great bunch of students right now in a traditional classroom. No PowerPoint, even, which is the first in a while for me. They throw questions and challenges at me left and right, they challenge each other, they bring up things they learn in other classes, they detain me for far too long after class asking question after question. I never make it back to my car alone; a student is always accompanying me, blathering. I love it. I look forward to going to class. I don’t know if I can touch them the way my favorite teaches have touched me, but it’s a hell of a lot more likely under these circumstances.
There is something special about the relationships in a classroom: both teacher-student and student-student. The flow of discussion, the building of a relatioship rather than the mere imparting of information. And online classes remove the presence of others which has in itself such an intellectual power. I mean anyone can find syllabi online and just read all the books on it. You’ll learn a lot but will be missing something, too – that kind of love which really changes your life.
UPDATED: In answer to some comments, I am not advocating getting rid of online classes. They are cost-effective, and for some people they are an opportunity for some education that they would otherwise get. I’m just saying it does come at some cost. Some of the people who get the most benefit from seeing their peers intellectually excited are people who went to underfunded, low-performing high schools. Alas, they are the most likely to benefit from the cost-effectiveness of an online class.