KEEP IT HUMAN

(one+ magazine) I have always hated online courses. Even though I’ve been a Net enthusiast since before there was a Net, I have never appreciated when intimate, real-life encounters are relegated to the digital realm. Education is a particularly human-to-human transmission. Students learn as much from watching their professors think in real time as they do hearing whatever facts and ideas come out of them.

So why, then, have I signed up to help Codecademy (www.codecademy.com), an entirely online school that teaches its students how to program? Even if I want to learn how to write code, shouldn’t a humanist like me be finding some real people from whom to learn, in person? Not necessarily.

Therein lies the difference between using digital technology effectively and using it in a way that undermines what is left of real-time, real-life interaction. There’s no doubt when we use the Net for engagement that might better be carried out in real life, we end up robbing ourselves of the richness and power of human contact. But by the very same token, when we fill up our real-life interaction time with activities that could have as easily been carried out alone or online, we squander what have become precious few opportunities for face-to-face exchange. We turn what could have been live events into boring, packaged exchanges of data.

This is why I hate using PowerPoint during lectures (and only did once). People can watch my slides over the Net. I don’t need to fly to some city across the world just to show slides. I can do that from home and Skype my voice. My physical presence—and everyone else’s—should be reserved for occasions when we want to take advantage of the 94 percent of human communication that occurs non-verbally, as well as the ability to go “off script” and engage spontaneously.

A growing number of public school teachers get this and have begun rethinking their curricula to fit what they’re calling the “flipped classroom.” These teachers put the lessons—the potentially boring part of school—on YouTube videos that the students can watch at home. Then the real classroom time is reserved for interaction, questions and exercises—the kinds of stuff that tend to happen more during what we now think of as “homework.”

Didactic learning—the person in front of the classroom—comes from the era of books. The teacher is generally responsible for telling students which parts of the book they need to really learn or memorize. With their backs to the students, they write on the board. Occasionally they turn to the room to find out who can parrot back what has been memorized.

Now that we have interactive machines, we no longer need to conduct our learning sessions in a format as pre-determined as responsive readings. In fact, digital environments can customize the didactic learning process to the individual. The program knows what the student has learned and what needs to be repeated. It can even learn which teaching styles work the best for each learner. This makes a computer a better instructor, in many ways, than a teacher who must create the same exact lesson for the 30 students in the room.

Despite their superiority on certain levels, digital schools like Codecademy are not a threat to established colleges. If anything, they free up real-world classes for the kinds of things that can only happen in the real world. Real college time can be spent in seminars, discussion groups and other more “constructivist” settings. The teacher’s job evolves from one of data transmission to that of meaning maker. The teacher contextualizes what has been learned and focuses less on the “what” than the “why.”

Where we get into trouble is when we overly depend on the digital to accomplish what still happens better in real life. Schools such as the University of Phoenix, for example, provide relatively inexpensive degrees to students from around the world and do so entirely online. Lectures, seminars and discussions—everything happens over the Net. The success of this university and others like it—at least as business plans—has many reevaluating the cost structure and benefit of traditional learning environments.

But it would be a big mistake to lump all kinds of learning into one bucket and then choose the digital option for everything. Yes, we have great financial problems in this country, but giving up on real-life education should not be our way of democratizing learning. It’s akin to streaming video of religious services online for the elderly, which really just gives everyone else an excuse not to make the effort to bring them to church or synagogue.

Rather, we must strive to distinguish what makes the real world so special, how communing in groups differs from individual activities and why we actually gather together in the first place. One+
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