Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Fetish of Presence

Via University Diaries, a Chronicle essay denounced distance learning and the e-classroom:

[O]nline courses are just a substitute for traditional education because a classroom full of bodies is quite literally full of real, living matter. In other words, it’s the real thing.

At the most basic level, to be a student has always meant actually dragging one’s exhausted body into class with readings in hand, being (more or less) awake, alert, listening, and ready to open one’s mouth. And to be a teacher, for me, means seeing the faces of the students and how their bodies reflect their thoughts and emotions, hearing the timbre of their voices or the lilts in their dialects, experiencing them before me in the rich mix of ideas.
Well, maybe to be a university student has usually meant that, but correspondence courses and independent study have actually been around and successful for a long time. There was a long time even in lecture or tutorial where teachers weren't at all interested in the faces of their students or hearing their voices, except in response to a direct question, and when bodies were in the classroom because they needed to be disciplined. And I've seen a lively discussion board bring out both students and ideas that otherwise go silent amid the sea of exhausted, passive eighteen-year-old faces. The point is, these things shift and change all the time, with technology, with generations, with changes in new ideas. Let's not fetishize a particular experience, whatever its advantages and appeal, as the wisdom of ages.

I think we also need to reject the idea that the student of an online class is sitting at home, sleeping in, skipping readings, and avoiding lecture in order to do precisely these things. It's an identical stereotype to that of the blogger in his/her pajamas, eating cheetos and spouting useless opinion. The distance-learning student I know best (my wife) works full-time, raises a ten-month-old infant, and lives over an hour away from her school's suburban campus. And she doesn't drive. Distance learning offers people in these circumstances the possibility of an education precluded people in similar circumstances "in the good old days." We should be applauding and encouraging them, as well as the teachers and institutions who try to reach them, instead of spouting useless opinion about how their learning isn't learning and why they aren't really students.

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