Technology can be extremely useful. No one in her or his right mind can deny that. Technology has facilitated communication, the exchange of ideas, and obtaining information way beyond anything most full-fledge adults would ever have imagined a mere 15 years ago. That so is obvious that there is no need to belabor the point. The question that I should like to consider is whether or not technology tremendously facilitates teaching.
I shall argue that technology is not the asset to teaching that so many seem to suppose that it is. In particular, technology is not at all the major factor in the matter of enriching the classroom experience as so many individuals nowadays seem to suppose that it is.
Of course, technology can be an asset, as the use of power-point makes abundantly clear. Unfortunately, there is a respect in which the use of power-point can undermine the richness of teaching, as instructors get too absorbed in their power-point presentation. In this regard, I jokingly say to students that in so many instances students can take off their clothes have sex and put their clothes back on without the instructor noticing. I always get a laugh out of that remark. Of course, I have clearly overstated the case. But the point I am making is way too clear, namely that in using power-point way too many instructors lose sight of the students in the class.
Teaching is not just about disseminating information. No, teaching at its best is about engaging students to think. A medical student told that most of his contemporaries do not attend class because the material is posted on blackboard. This observation brings me to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC).
With a MOOC course, thousands of individuals can take the same course from the same professor. And in some instances that might be just fine. If folks are interested in acquiring general knowledge about various things such as how to plant flowers or how the universe evolved or the fundamental differences between various species, it is clear that a MOOC course can be quite useful.
It is a grave mistake, however, to confuse a Massive Open Online Course with genuine teaching. For one thing, with a MOOC there can be no direct student-instructor engagement. For another, there cannot be the kind of engagement in the classroom that transforms the classroom because everyone in the class can sense that the topic under discussion means far more to everyone than anyone had initially supposed would be the case. Thirdly, with a MOOC course, a professor cannot intellectually affirm a student in the way that the professor can do in the classroom where she or he can directly interact with the students.
Two semesters ago in my Philosophy 191 at Syracuse University the topic was death. Well, student in the 400-person Grant Auditorium spoke with extraordinary majesty and grace about having lost both of her parents. No one saw that remark coming. The entire class was absolutely riveted and transformed by what she said. There is simply no way in which a MOOC course could have yielded an analogous experience. Either no student in a MOOC course would make the remark or, if a student did do so, the remark would not have the impact that it did in Philosophy 191 two semesters ago.
In teaching about parental love, I once read in class a set of remark by a student regarding how much he meant to his parents. Just about everyone was moved to tears. In that same class, a student asserted that only Latino people should adopt Latino infants. Well, for the first time ever, my class backed off of political correctness. At least 389 individuals held the view that parental love trumps ethnicity. Our seeing that assessment play itself out in real time was none other than a tremendous moral and intellectual gift for all to witness.
Teaching at its very best is about the experience of intellectual affirmation whilst learning. Sometimes that affirmation is planned or at least reasonably anticipated. Alas, there so very many cases when such affirmation is entirely unanticipated. The right question or comment at the right time can absolutely transform the class, giving students a depth of either inspiration or insight that will serve them well for many years in the future. MOOC courses are not at all conducive to that kind of affirmation.
Finally, there is the issue of letters of reference. With MOOC courses, letters of references will simply become obsolete. It should already be clear as to why that is so, namely there is no interaction between the professor and the student for whom the professor has written the letter. No institution wants a letter in which the professor says no more about the student that the student earned a grade of “A”. After all, that information can be learned from merely reading the student’s transcript. A meaningful letter of reference talks about the student’s ideas: their richness and their depth and their applicability. A meaningful letter of reference also talks about the student’s character; and insight into a person’s character can be richly obtained from observing her or his non-verbal behavior throughout the semester—something which is impossible with someone who is a student by way of a MOOC course. Again, an MOOC course will not allow that special insight into a student’s character that only comes about as a result of knowing the student.
The above considerations tell us two things that surely we already know, namely that nothing can replace a human’s genuine affirmation of a person and nothing can replace a human’s observation and appreciation of the excellence that a person exhibits, be that excellence intellectual or moral or both.
I am a big believer in technology; and I make use of it on a regular basis. But in the spirit of Solomon: “Unto everything there is a season”. If we reduce teaching to merely transmitting information, as will surely be the case with MOOC courses, then we radically change education for the worse. There is a respect in which teaching is like the parent-child relationship. In either case, there is nothing whatsoever that can substitute for direct interpersonal interaction, with all that this implies in terms of the parties involved witnessing and experiencing the non-verbal behavior of the parties interacting with one another.
© 2013 Laurence Thomas