Online Education, Impersonal Meanings

By: Ignacio Perez, Andrew Win, Sydney Friedman

Online education is becoming an extremely popular means of obtaining an education. In reading The New York Times piece, “Revolution Hits the Universities”, various questions come into fruition that relate to the sociological analyses Fischer explores with regards to the telephone. The article points out that “last May, about 300,000 people were taking 38 courses taught by Stanford professors and a few other elite universities. Today, they have 2.4 million students, taking 214 courses from 33 universities, including eight international ones,” which makes us wonder if online education has the potential to reach the status of “commonplace” as described by Fischer.

One of the main questions that online education platforms like Coursera raises is whether it has the same potential to create strong networking with peers as an “in-person education.” While pursuing a Masters at the School of Information we are given a network of classmates, professionals, and future professionals in the Bay Area that stretches beyond class-time and assignments.  Campuses provide an intimate setting for learning and interaction. If online education, like the telephone, were to proliferate and become commonplace as addressed in Fischer’s Chapter Six, how will this affect the “localism” of university education?

The advent of online education include activities that cannot be transferred from physical to digital life, perhaps dissolving a sense of localism. Campuses offer a sense of community and school pride, often culminated in football games, school rivalries, and various campus events. Online education permeates at a national, even global level, so the localism of traditional student life may be compromised for digital students. The idiosyncratic cultures of university life are at a loss when it comes to platforms like Coursera.

Willey and Rice may distinguish the geographically pervasive quality of online education as an offspring of “broadcast media” as opposed to “point-to-point” media, like the telephone (Calling America, 195). Broadcast media “flattens local cultural variations by introducing national ideas”, an action that is easier to imagine from place-less digital education. With the decrease in personal interaction at school, such as directly speaking and working with a professor in class, and the rise of less personal renditions of education, including online lectures and assignments, we question the toll that a lack of socialization would have on students. It is no new knowledge that education is a social, human act, often a breed of rigorous and repeated engaging with classmates and teachers. Some theorists even claim that because the average adolescent student forgets material learned after 2 months, high school is all but useless aside from the experience of learning how to socialize with peers.

Some of the same questions and complaints raised during the inception of the telephone apply to online education. Just as previous opposers to the telephone were concerned that the device would replace real, authentic human interaction with a more superficial, electronic communication, one may ask the same of online education: can digital learning be as effective as the more “human” learning that occurs in physical classrooms? What happens when keyboards and screens replace face-to-face verbal communication and conversations with peers?

Despite the numerous limitations of online education, particularly when compared with the “localism” of University campuses, there are various benefits that come to mind with digital learning. As presented in the New York Times article, Mitch Duneier, a Princeton sociology professor, compares the hundreds of comments and questions he received just a few hours of posting his lecture online with the much fewer questions he receives in actual lectures. He states, “Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars.” Another hypothetical example includes that of the Statistics major, who needs to survey as many students as possible; this feat is more likely easier on an online education platform, where he or she can reach thousands of similar users, than the college classroom, fitting at most 200 students.

Additionally, online education can be cheaper and accessible, and potentially less discriminatory than normal education. Physical barriers, like money or location can be avoided or reduced. It does not matter if you live far away from the education place, or even if you live a different country: the limitations of space and time can be avoided. Like the telephone, we are no longer confined to the space immediately around us and the time consumption of writing letters.

The online learning environment provides a different approach to the stress problems in universities: flexible hours for classes and exams.  While traditional University-attending students have to manage stresses of deadlines and work-life balance, online learning provides flexibility of time: everything from assignments to exams are self-paced.  The flexibility is also useful for people with disabilities: as is explained in the Times column, the online experience was great for a 17-year-old student with autism. The chances for online education to tear down different kind of walls are surprising.

Can we still learn the skills that are at the bottom of a worthwhile education? Critical thinking, clear writing, quantitative reasoning and effective speaking are key for any professional education. While some can be successfully addressed online, the cost of not acquiring these skills can be detrimental.  In particular, developing good speaking and social skills in online education is a problem that is still pending.  These attributes are critical when entering the workforce as communicating ideas is essential.

There is still one question that is difficult to answer: Why is the traditional model of education being challenged today? One reason is that the traditional model has a lot of problems that have not been addressed for a long time, for example, the socioeconomic wall that prevents students from affording a bachelor’s degree.  Online education is not offering a complete solution to such a problem yet, but is working to provide students of lower socio-economic levels accessibility to education. We think that the huge impact of social networks is increasingly demonstrating online communication as a sustainable and real way to communicate with peers, and it is starting to change and permeate our society in the same way that the telephone, the automobile and other technologies, and perhaps even become so commonplace as to become mundane.

One thought on “Online Education, Impersonal Meanings

  1. Pingback: MOOCs: The Myth Of Online Classrooms | INFO 203, Spring 2013

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