We Need to Talk

I posted a copy of my blog entry from yesterday on my Facebook page and it touched off a few protests. A friend showed the post to someone actually teaching in Second Life, and she disagreed strongly with what I wrote. Another reader suggested that I set up a "straw person" argument by pitting face-to-face teaching against on-line courses and instruction in Second Life. I might call that a false dilemma instead of straw man, but the point is well taken. A lot of instruction today uses a mixture of on-line and face-to-face teaching. Students use chat rooms to discuss topics, they post blog entries, etc. Some professors use You-Tube or podcasting. There are a lot of creative uses of technology out there and a lot of really good teachers using it.

So let me state categorically that I'm not anti-technology (Hey, I met my partner via Match.com!). But I am anti-techno-utopianism and the idea that there exists an educational silver bullet. I'm reading a great book now called "Why Don't Students Like School?" by Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive scientist. His answer is that the mind is not designed for thinking. In fact, it's designed to avoid thinking. That's the bad news. The good news is that people are naturally curious. So the problem in education is pretty much what it's always been: finding a way to arouse a student's desire to know. If technology can provoke a student's interest in a subject (and not just the technology itself), then I'm all for it. Too often in education, however, we reward the innovative use of technology without asking some important questions:

1. What problem does this solve? So far as I can tell instruction on-line and in Second Life solves only the problems of space and time. It allows students who can't be in the same place to simulate being in the same place. It doesn't do anything to enhance learning, which, let's not forget, is the point of the game.

2. Whose problem is it? It's the problem of people who can't be there. If anyone is using this technology for on-campus students in lieu of having the class actually meet, that's rather sad. You've made the technology the subject of the class, not the subject you're supposed to be teaching. It might also be the problem of bean counters who want to find ways to make education more cost effective. That's not a problem to be lightly dismissed either.

3. Was this a problem that really needed solving? Hmm...? Sometimes yes, but mostly no. We've had distance learning for years. It used to be called a correspondence course. The instruction was two way but not real time. We just do the same thing much faster now. In fact we keep solving the problems of time and distance over and over with technology, but we forget that overcoming these impediments is not really the primary difficulty in education. It's getting students to learn. Besides, mental models change slowly. Real learning takes a long time. We have to work through complex ideas, especially those that require us to abandon old models. We've known this since William Perry's work on undergraduate cognitive development almost 40 years ago. Teaching in Second Life or on-line doesn't really address the primary educational problem, but it sure requires us to spend a lot of time getting technologically up to date.

4. Who wins and who loses when we use this technology? Professors and students lose. They lose something central to the student-teacher dynamic and the beauty of learning itself. Will my on-line professor avatar sense when the class has reached its limit of attention span? Will it see the furrowed brow of a student who needs just a bit more time on task before moving on? Will it note that someone is just having a bad day, or that someone else is desperately struggling to formulate a question. Will it feel the ambient mood? But for the sake of argument, let's say that a professor on Second Life could do all of the intuitive, non-verbal things I mentioned above. Now read question three again. We can already do them a whole lot easier and cheaper. So who wins? Software companies, not necessarily students and teachers.

5. How will this change us? I fully subscribe to the late Niel Postman's theory that the dominant form of communication inevitably shapes the way we think (and I've been cribbing a lot of his arguments here). There's a reason why Solomon knew three thousand parables. In an oral culture wisdom is stored in narratives. There's a reason that audiences in the 19th century could listen to the Lincoln-Douglass debates for hours and follow the complicated arguments. America in the 19th century was for the most part a culture that thought in prose form. Wisdom was equated with textual erudition. It's hard to embody complex, nuanced thinking with Twitter. The thing to remember is that when we switch communications technologies, we change ourselves (and not always for the better). So maybe teaching in Second Life is all that; we should still be asking some serious questions about how it will change us?

If I were writing one of those treacly "This I Believe" essays, it would have to include the idea that deep learning--the kind that changes thinking--is an intrinsically human activity that requires something more than just the exchange of information. We are hard-wired by nature to be social creatures who are powerfully affected by the actual presence of one another. A few years ago I struck up a friendship with a guy on a threaded message board devoted to--of all things--college football. I didn't know the guy's real name, didn't even know where he was, but we ended up having many deep philosophical discussions about an amazing range of subjects: aesthetics, religion, history, politics, economics, ethics, our lives really and even our dreams.

In a sense, we were working against the technology of a threaded discussion board, which tends to prize quick, deft comments with a lot of smack and snark. We wrote what amounted to long, carefully crafted letters or essays that easily could have been sent by snail mail. The technology didn't change the content; it just sped the exchange. I'm wholly convinced, however, that we would have gotten to a deeper level of mutual understanding more quickly and efficiently with a good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation.

Anyway, after a few years we revealed our identities to one another. I felt like I knew this guy, yet we had never met face-to-face. So I told him if he ever made it to my city, he ought to give me a call and we'd share a pint or two and have a good discussion. One day, there was his voice on my answering machine. I thought, good heavens, for all I know the guy could be a murderer. But I met him in a pub and we shared a few beers. The point is that even though we knew each other well, there was still this incredible urge to be in the same place, to have a face, a living soul.

I don't often side with Plato (tend to be more an Aristotelian), but I agree with his argument in Phaedrus that anything that interposes the connection of two embodied human souls struggling to understand a higher wisdom (even the written word) is a hindrance rather than an aid. Teachers can draw inspiration from their students' presence just as actors can express their art more beautifully before a live audience. Presence is powerful.


Josephine said…
I think you're missing a big point, which is that an increasing amount of collaboration happens online these days and that students need to know how to build rich, layered relationships in a completely online platform. This is indeed a problem that needs to be solved. Many people don't know how to optimize these platforms and therefore, don't know how to build good online rapport.

One of the classes I teach, Collaboration in Networked Environments, focuses specifically on that. It's an online course and though some of the students may be in NY, I prefer that they do not meet in person, because I want them to understand and know how to build rich relationships by using only online platforms.

I use mixed reality and plenty of social media tools so it creates a sense of presence among the students. For example, here's a Seesmic discussion with guest speaker Fred Benenson from Creative Commons.

I have students use Twitter as well, to follow people that are aligned with their interests and again to help create a sense of presence with each other, so in fact, I do know when one of them is having a bad day.

But the larger issue is that you're comparing apples with oranges. I think that comparing real life scenarios with virtual experiences is not only tired, but irrelevant.

Aren't we past this idea of comparing one with the other - of seeing things as black and white? I do not think that the point is to replicate f2f, or mimic it. What we can do, is optimize the experience, whether it be real, virtual or mixed. There are advantages and disadvantages to each option and having a conceptual understanding of how to create rich experiences, build emotional ties and collaborate and learn efficiently and effectively while exploiting the strengths of whatever platform(s) you're using, is ultimately the shared goal.
Online environments may be more inclusive than the physical classroom. Online, gender and ethnicity doesn't matter, and students often contribute more than they would offline. Online learning takes different learning styles into account, and leaves room for students to deliberate at their own speed. Strong emotions can come up when students are learning, and these can be expressed without the learner being embarrassed in a f2f situation, in the privacy of his/her home.

Working online helps non-traditional students and those with tight budgets. I've met students who can't pay the NY subway fare to get to class. Working people with children may also find it more cost effective to work from home. Plus, working online is green.

Both professors and students win by incorporating online learning because it is more inclusive.
Professor Quest said…
Wow, thanks for both of your throughtful critiques. I was especially struck, Josephine, by your goal of teaching students how to build rich, layered relationships in a completely on-line platform. That's desperately needed given things like JuicyCampus.com, etc. And you're absolutely right that students will lead a great deal of their lives working collaboratively via new communication technologies. We can't ignore that.

I still think we should be asking some serious questions about the results of embracing such things in the classroom. I don't think we've done it in a real way, so I can't agree that we are past it. We never really had the conversation. We just dove in.

Most people today have abandoned the Enlightenment's meta-narrative of human progress except, it seems, when it comes to embracing new technology. What's new is usually accepted as beneficial without a lot of serious reflection about unintended consequences.

I suppose I come at this as someone who has taught in a learning community for years. This experience has really shaped (and perhaps unhelpfully biased) my ideas about teaching. Students in the program stay with their cohort for four semesters taking intensive seminars that deal with big questions: What is the self? What does it mean to be human?

But the real aim of learning communities is to learn community --to learn how to live with each other while agreeing on little. I really find value in getting them into a place where they can't avoid dealing with with their differences, and occupying the same space day-after-day makes that happen. I've seen the stoutest Christian fundamentalist come to respect and even like a trans-gendered athiest. I think the actual distance in any kind of distance learning is somewhat of an impediment to this goal. I can't unsubscribe from my neighbors. I have to deal with them in real time even when I don't want to.

This has been a traditional problem in American society. Historically, we don't deal with our diffrences. We pack up, head West, or out to ethnically monochromatic suburbs. We don't want to be made uncomfortable with difference. The on-line world is in many cases (but not all) an extension of America's genius for avoiding our problems.

You're right, too, Jessica Suzette, that the use of on-line distance learning can be more inclusive in the sense that students can cloak their gender and ethnic identities, but the research I've seen is that outside of our classes students' on-line activities are not at all diverse. In fact, the on-line communities that my students frequent are probably the least diverse places in our society, even more so than my classroom (and I teach in state with large majority white population).

I would argue that gender and ethnic identities do matter. I want my students to pay attention to them, to deal with them. I don't want them to be anonymous. Learning to deal with differences rather than cloaking them is kind of the point. Besides there are dozens of ways that you can use in the classroom to assure anonymity when discussing sensitive issues, and they are far less technologically cumbersome. Some are even more green than an I-pod filled with electricty generated by a coal-fired power plant.

It may be that I've made an apples and oranges oversimplification in many cases. I accept that as a valid criticism. And thanks again to both of you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. You've given me much to ponder.

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