Author Nicholas Carr Examines Online Education
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, has written a fascinating article in the magazine Technology Review. “Has technology at last advanced to the point where the revolutionary promise of distance learning can be fulfilled?” he asks. “We don’t yet know; the fervor surrounding MOOCs [massive open online courses] makes it easy to forget that they’re still in their infancy. But even at this early juncture, the strengths and weaknesses of this radically new form of education are coming into focus.”
In the excerpt below, he explores some of the potential weaknesses of online education. The growing enthusiasm surrounding web-based teaching should be tempered by skepticism”:
“The benefits of machine learning in education remain largely theoretical. And even if AI techniques generate genuine advances in pedagogy, those breakthroughs may have limited application. It’s one thing for programmers to automate courses of instruction when a body of knowledge can be defined explicitly and a student’s progress measured precisely. It’s a very different thing to try to replicate on a computer screen the intricate and sometimes ineffable experiences of teaching and learning that take place on a college campus.
The promoters of MOOCs have a ‘fairly naïve perception of what the analysis of large data sets allows,’ says Timothy Burke, a history professor at Swarthmore College. He contends that distance education [e.g., the correspondence courses that were online education's predecessor] has historically fallen short of expectations not for technical reasons but, rather, because of ‘deep philosophical problems’ with the model.
He grants that online education may provide efficient training in computer programming and other fields characterized by well-established procedures that can be codified in software. But he argues that the essence of a college education lies in the subtle interplay between students and teachers that cannot be simulated by machines, no matter how sophisticated the programming.
Alan Jacobs, a professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois, raises similar concerns. In an e-mail to me, he observed that the work of college students ‘can be affected in dramatic ways by their reflection on the rhetorical situations they encounter in the classroom, in real-time synchronous encounters with other people.’
The full richness of such conversations can’t be replicated in Internet forums, he argued, ‘unless the people writing online have a skilled novelist’s ability to represent complex modes of thought and experience in prose.’ A computer screen will never be more than a shadow of a good college classroom. Like Burke, Jacobs worries that the view of education reflected in MOOCs has been skewed toward that of the computer scientists developing the platforms.” Read more here.
What do you think? I know that I was “affected in dramatic ways” by the “richness” of the conversations I had in college (in class and out), and I too am skeptical that they can be replicated in an online setting. But that’s not to say that online education doesn’t have enormous potential in some domains.