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The Forum | General Education

Online Education Cannot Replace the Collegiate Experience

March 31, 2020 by Alexandra Quillen and Nathaniel Urban

COVID-19 is redefining higher education. In less than a month, thousands of colleges and universities shifted to online coursework, forcing faculty without experience or interest in e-teaching to learn new technologies and instruction techniques overnight. But what will this sudden immersion in online course delivery mean for a collegiate education over the long-term? Are faculty about to prove the viability of a completely different educational model?

A recent Inside Higher Ed article is right to weigh in on the limitations of online learning. While remote learning keeps students and faculty safe and will allow students to complete the semester in the face of unprecedented campus shutdowns, online pedagogy will always lack the crucial human element of in-person interaction that immeasurably adds to the learning experience.  

A physical classroom is a communal sanctuary for students. Together they share the anxiety of an exam, rich discussion of a text, and curiosity of an experiment. These emotions are not as strongly experienced when interaction is mediated by computers and tablets. Online learning, though convenient and necessary during present circumstances, limits students’ ability to share their intellectual struggles and triumphs with one another.  

According to Plato’s Republicthumos (Greek; spiritedness) is the emotional element in virtue by which humans feel anger, fear, and anxiety. Debate, naturally, gives rise to one’s thumos. The vein pops out of the orator’s neck, spit flies from the mouth, and arms flail in the air as he delivers a powerful opinion. The chests of the audience members swell and their own egos sore at the thought of possessing the art of persuasion themselves. The emotional and raw spiritedness of an orator is not as easily felt, nor conveyed, in online instruction. It is the difference between reading Pericles’s funeral oration and being there for it.

Likewise, intellectual debate is a key element of an engaged classroom. As advanced as online learning technology is, video conferencing is not a conducive environment for intellectual debate. In the tumultuous “cancel culture” environment, it is easier to dismiss an individual’s humanity when the only point of contact is through a virtual interface. Moderated, face-to-face interaction forces students to engage civilly with one another, to recognize the structure of their peers’ arguments without the safety net of a “mute” button or the option to end the conversation with a mouse click.

A physical classroom, lastly, commands more respect than that of the kitchen table or home office. A classroom or lecture hall is the instructor’s domain, and authority is implied. Students enter with a sense of humility. They are less easily distracted and held accountable for their participation. They are expected to give their undivided attention to the instructor at the front of the room, participate in the day’s lesson, and leave when the instructor dismisses the class. Students are much less likely to pick up material on their own when they can retreat from the day’s lesson to an intellectual safe space of their choosing at the moment they so desire.

Students do not attend college simply to furnish their minds with facts. A collegiate education should also strengthen the intellect, refine students’ tastes, and develop intellectual humility. All of these endeavors take great effort—effort that is often motivated by deep interpersonal connections. Friendships (even rivalries) with peers help drive students to put long hours into broadening their horizons, refining their arguments, perfecting their prose, and even improving their characters. 

Mankind, by nature, is meant to live in various social, intellectual, and political communities with one another. Aristotle defines mankind as “political animals,” or social creatures that live in a polis (Greek; city). Students will not conduct their professional lives through virtual conference calls. And in their roles as citizens and members of their communities, they will have to constructively channel their passions and work together.

Given the spread and uncertainty of COVID-19, online instruction is essential to our current safety. However, when the pandemic subsides, higher education should not consider online instruction a permanent alternative to in-person instruction. The absence of a physical, shared space will harm students’ well-being and rob them of the virtuous habits cultivated through in-person instruction.

Nathaniel Urban and Alexandra Quillen are members of the academic affairs team at ACTA.

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