Online Training vs. Online Education

If you are a fan of what is called “online education,” you might want to read the piece my friend Cliff Orwin published today in Toronto’s Globe and Mail. The key to understanding his contention that online and education are terms that do not belong together is the fact that he distinguishes education from training: “By ‘education,’” he writes,

I don’t mean training or even mere instruction. Widget-making (however complex the widget) may well be teachable online. By education I mean formation of the whole person, to which the humanities have traditionally aspired – as have the natural and social sciences in their noblest conceptions of themselves.

Orwin does not deny that an electronic component can be useful. He recognizes that viewing a lecture on a screen from afar at one’s leisure can be an advantage. But he insists that something of great importance will always be missing.

The New York Times of July 19 contained an excellent column by the University of Virginia’s Mark Edmundson. He explained why teaching requires the physical presence of the students. Prof. Edmundson likens good teaching to jazz. It is inherently responsive and improvisational. You revise your presentation as it goes, incorporating the students’ evolving reception of it. In response to their response, as individuals and as a group, you devise new variations on your theme. You don’t address students in the abstract or as some anonymous throng scattered throughout cyberspace. You always teach these students, in this room, at this time.

So it matters to me to know who my students are, to know their faces and names, to see how they dress and what they’re reading. I need to talk to them before and after class and listen to what they’re saying among themselves. Above all, it’s crucial for me to hear their voices as they answer my questions and ask their own, to heed their inflections and mark the expressions on their faces. In my large introductory course, I devote a third of the time to discussion. That’s not just so the students can probe me, but so I can probe them.

It’s equally important to the students that I’m there. They need a real person with whom to engage. Someone to interrogate. Someone to persuade them. Someone to resist. Someone with whom they can identify or refuse to identify. Because education addresses the whole person, it requires a real person to model it. It matters to the students not just to hear what I say but to hear the voice in which I say it – the hesitations as well as the certainties. They need an example of someone who, like them, is learning as he goes along – but just happens to be further along than they are.

Live education is expensive, you say? The best things in life tend to be.

What Orwin is arguing for here is, of course, a liberal education, and he knows perfectly well that such an education is not suitable for everyone. But I think that, within the limits he sets, his argument is sound.

The most important course I ever took was a seminar taught on Plato’s Republic at Cornell in 1968/69 by Allan Bloom. I vigorously resisted his argument; I fought against him both terms; and, in part for that reason, he was never especially fond of me. But the exchanges we had nonetheless changed my life. I fought him until he persuaded me, and those exchanges inspired me to do a great deal of reading in subsequent years as I struggled to understand through the lens of certain great books what was going on all around me.

There was  an electricity in that seminar that I have always tried to replicate in my classes. My aim is to provoke and to inspire — to get the students to interrogate the texts that they are reading and to think. And when I succeed, as I sometimes do, they force me to rethink — for, if they get drawn in, they either resist my interpretation or press it further than I have.

The same thing can happen as a consequence of a lecture. Most often, things come alive when I open things up for questions. Sometimes I learn things I did not know. At other times I have to think on my feet — and when I do I learn things that I would not otherwise learn. Online education cannot be much more than a pale shadow of the education that takes place in a seminar or when questions are posed.

Training may well be another matter. A video can help me see how to put a bike together. A video can teach me the rules of poker (especially if I can watch it twice). An online lecture can help me understand Hamlet. But it is not a substitute for what goes on in a seminar on Hamlet. Some things cannot be done on the cheap, alas.

  1. Reckless Endangerment

    Tyler Cowen highlighted a form of this phenomenon a few months ago at Virginia Tech as it applies in introductory courses in  a few subject areas.

    As a former high school teacher of civics and economics, I do  think my students would have benefited from some of the more procedural aspects of what I was trying to teach them. For example, why is a demand curve downward sloping? How does the law of diminishing returns apply to the marginal cost curve? There are fantastic videos online explaining these topics which students can watch  and then if they do not understand the concept upon the first listening, can go back and re-listen. However, a good teacher will always be necessary to draw out of his or her students the implications of these realities and to apply them to current events so students know that these are not arcane topics relegated to the classroom forever.

    Dr. Rahe’s experience in a lively seminar demonstrates how crucial the lecture/discussion method is when you advance into higher education. The most active students are a check against the biases of opinionated professors and foster a collective pursuit of what Plato called “Truth”

  2. Dr. Curmudgeon

    Dr. Rahe, I both hope and fear that you are correct in the “education” versus “training” distinction.  On the one hand, it promises the retention of a humanities curriculum and preserves the (broadly understood) civilizing function colleges and universities have had for centuries.

    On the other hand, what worries me is that the “education” and “training” distinction will lead to a segregation of American higher education.  Pricey private liberal arts colleges and Ivies will keep the humanities, while more affordable state universities (answerable to taxpayers, state boards of eduction, and budget watching pols) will devolve into purely vocational institutions offering degrees in the hard sciences and business only.

  3. The King Prawn

    Yes, but how much individual interaction do most students get with their educators in the modern higher education lecture auditorium filled with 500+ students and a grad student delivering the lecture?

    My experience with online education involved virtually no lectures. The source material reading was the lecture. Discussions almost exactly like we have here at Ricochet were the interaction. I probably received more from the experience than the average student, but I actually did the reading and engaged the instructors and other students in the online discussions. Though I never saw their faces, I received more individual attention and instruction from the teachers in those courses than I did from traditional instruction because there were fewer limitations on the time of engagement and less competing voices within that time. I realize that such is not the case for everyone. Online education puts the onus on the student to receive more than on the educator to give.

  4. Crow

    I completely agree with what you’ve said above, Prof. Rahe, and had a very similar experience as an undergraduate, first with Aristotle’s Politics in a seminar (20 students). Discussion, debate, and proceeding by questioning simply cannot be replaced by a powerpoint or instructional video. To sum up my experience in shorthand: there are to this day a number of books that are never far from my mind. 

    The distinction you’ve illustrated is one that American “higher education” is losing sight of–in part due to the maniacal pursuit of specialization, but also in the way that students who were not necessarily best off in a liberal arts curriculum are being herded into university classrooms that resemble nothing so much as factories, and which only serve to impoverish the genuine experience (which can be life-changing) with liberal education.

  5. Skyler

    I’m sorry, but that’s pure snobbery.  

    I have found that the university professors I’ve had have at times been good, more often competent, but often they have been dreadful.  I need a credit in a subject for a degree, but I have to sit through Prof. Boring’s class to get it.  If I have to go to an online source to learn the material after sitting through boring lectures, then why should I pay for the boring lecture?  

    Really, the only reason to prefer a brick house university over an online one is because of the entrenched interest of the university.  There really is no benefit, unless you think fraternities and dorms are the most mature environment to send your kids to.

  6. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Dr. Curmudgeon: Dr. Rahe, I both hope and fear that you are correct in the “education” versus “training” distinction.  On the one hand, it promises the retention of a humanities curriculum and preserves the (broadly understood) civilizing function colleges and universities have had for centuries.

    On the other hand, what worries me is that the “education” and “training” distinction will lead to a segregation of American higher education.  Pricey private liberal arts colleges and Ivies will keep the humanities, while more affordable state universities (answerable to taxpayers, state boards of eduction, and budget watching pols) will devolve into purely vocational institutions offering degrees in the hard sciences and business only. · 42 minutes ago

    I share your fears.

  7. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Skyler: I’m sorry, but that’s pure snobbery.  

    I have found that the university professors I’ve had have at times been good, more often competent, but often they have been dreadful.  I need a credit in a subject for a degree, but I have to sit through Prof. Boring’s class to get it.  If I have to go to an online source to learn the material after sitting through boring lectures, then why should I pay for the boring lecture?  

    Really, the only reason to prefer a brick house university over an online one is because of the entrenched interest of the university.  There really is no benefit, unless you think fraternities and dorms are the most mature environment to send your kids to. · 0 minutes ago

    As I said, liberal education is not suitable for everyone.

  8. Doug Kimball

    Small classroom seminars are a rarity in our public universities.  Students can graduate having never had that experience.  It’s interesting to watch this debate. 

    Why has no one pointed out that the the government’s financial aid policy is “from each according to his parent’s means, to each according to his necessity”?  Funny, it follows the Ivy League’s financial aid policy!  Marx and Engel would be so proud.

  9. Paladin

    Eight high quality posts in the last five days? Dr. Rahe, you are incredible and you spoil us here at Ricochet! I hope your students realize how very fortunate they are.

  10. Donald Todd

    Paul, there was the year I worked for a  Catholic parish and spent a large portion of that reading the Russian authors such as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn.  I wanted to know what they were saying.  I  remember enjoying them all but Tolstoy.  

    Tolstoy was problematic for me.  He could make wallpaper sound interesting, but he did not like people.  Whenever I finished one of his books, I stopped reading for at least a few days until the vituperation went away.  Yet I was assured of his genius.  I could read it and understand it.

    To be sure, I read each book, including the two books of the Gulag Archipelago, straight through, as time permitted.

    I may have benefited from a teacher of Russian literature, but then I may have gotten some deconstructionist, or worse, some idiot savant of the Soviet ethic who hated Solzhenitsyn and had been awarded a PhD in Russian literature.

    So I am caught.  Did I miss something.  Perhaps, but perhaps not, and now I will never know.

  11. Eric Voegelin

    I agree. I graduated from a good, midwestern, four-year liberal arts college in ’68. As a freshman, I received a John Houseman-style dressing down from my history professor over my choice of subject for a proposed paper. There were maybe half a dozen other students in the room and I’m sure they were all somewhat shocked as I know I was. But it was an essential part of my education — a brutal notice that he expected nothing less than excellence – and it could not have happened online. And there were other fine professors too.

    But there aren’t enough good schools and good professors to go around these days. I’m afraid that we’ve seen a golden age come and go.

    UPDATE: Today, I condemn what my school has become and I do so on the basis of what the professors there taught me. There’s an irony for you.

  12. genferei

    There are how many millions of ‘university’ students in physical universities? How many dozen have a Bloomlike whole person shaping experience? I’ll give you that such an experience is valuable, but what a staggeringly inefficient way to deliver it.

  13. Crow

    It’s important to emphasize, as Prof. Rahe suggests and as Prof. Orwin makes a bit more explicit, that education proper includes a kind of character training (some studies even presuppose it) and example setting which is exceeding difficult to replicate at a distance. 

    It’s one of the reasons to prefer private education to public education in our time–our public schools are either no longer willing or no longer able to help in character formation.

  14. Trace

    Nonsense. Sloan Consortium has been studying this for 15 years. Many people respond far more effectively in a less public environment in which they feel less vulnerable participating in class discussion. And many instructors respond more readily and effectively to students in an online setting.

    Not everyone can be an effective instructor or learner online but this essay and frankly your endorsementof it Dr. Rahe reflects an uninformed attitude common to traditional academics not borne out by research or even simple first-hand observation but from a legitimate sense of threat.

    Would you not acknowledge the quality of discussion and interaction that takes place in this forum? Would you not acknowledge that it meets or exceeds that of at least some of your own classroom experiences? I know it parallels or exceeds many or mine and I attended excellent, traditional schools. 

    No, not everyone is suited to a liberal education but that has nothing to do with the efficacy of the instructional format. There are plenty of students in large state universities and small private colleges that would be better off receiving skills-based training.

  15. Chris Campion

    A “liberal” education, meaning someone studying classics, languages, political science, etc, does benefit from that back and forth dialogue that is more immediate and present.

    But frankly, that model does not and cannot apply to all disciplines, and I do not need a philosophical discussion on the merits of capitalism while I’m working up an Excel model on projected cash flows based on historical and predictive factors.  What I need is time and a resource to hit up when I get stuck – if I get stuck, badly.

    This is the difference between direct, hands-on learning, learning that applies to the real world where projects are assigned and you’re expected to complete them – meaning you do it yourself.  Like many students, I need to *do* in order to learn, not to be lectured to, and to then denigrate the online education as a whole because of only one or two areas of study (and I agree that not all studies fit well into the digital model) seems at least disingenuous. 

  16. skoook

    This should be the first chapter in the Richochet greatest hits collection.It show cases the Ricochet promise that Rob,Peter and James wax poetic about.

    Ever since Instapundit steered me to the Khan Academy http://www.khanacademy.org/ ,I haven been observing the education of 6 grandchildren 6-16. Our public schools are delivering poor training at great expense. Education is very scarce, I cant imagine even 10% of public school teachers through high school meeting Dr. Rahe’s definition of education.

    The comments to date  showcase the excellence of Comments on Ricochet compared to other sites. Thanks Professor Rahe

  17. Chris Campion

    (continued):  But then to state that the things worth having are expensive supports a ridiculous financial model of higher ed that is entirely backed by federal loan programs, which contribute directly to the double-digit annual growth rates in the costs of colleges.  Colleges building lavish dorms with pools and home theatres in order to attract students, well, that seems to run contrary to all the discussion about the value of Socratic dialogue, when kids are selecting their schools on the basis of what’s on the cafeteria menu versus the curriculum and the teachers themselves.

    I agree this problem is much larger than what’s presented here.  I’ve worked at a college, and graduated from two of them.  I would still argue that regardless of the methods, and the teachers, it’s up to the student to engage – period.  If they want what they think they’re buying, they’ll engage.  If not, they’ll expect to be spoon-fed through college, like they have through K-12 – and they’ll cry about it when they don’t get it. 

    These are not adults we’re graduating.  I see it in the workplace.

  18. Crow
    Trace Urdan: There are plenty of students in large state universities and small private colleges that would be better off receiving skills-based training.ronment to send your kids to. 

    Chris Campion: But frankly, that model does not and cannot apply to all disciplines, and I do not need a philosophical discussion on the merits of capitalism while I’m working up an Excel model on projected cash flows based on historical and predictive factors.  What I need is time and a resource to hit up when I get stuck – if I get stuck, badly.

    Gents: The qualities on the kinds of instruction you’ve mentioned here do not contradict the larger argument that Prof. Rahe is making. 

    If I’m a buyer who wants to have an airplane built, then I want an aeronautical engineer who has both a mastery of the principles of physics in understanding what makes a plane fly, and has a successful business track record of hands-on experience building planes that do actually fly!

    The question is whether all things can be boiled down in such a way to a technical skill. All things are not like art of aircraft building.

  19. Trace

    The argument proffered supposes that every classroom experience meets its Socratic ideal which we all know from first-hand experience, is absurd. It also assumes that every student seeking a degree is 18-22 and attending full-time — also false. Finally it ignores the hazy middle ground where most online degrees live between the bike assembly you so condescendingly suggest and the study of Plato.

    Most online degree instruction is in areas that are pre-professional or professional. Is the study of business a worthy academic pursuit? It involves a lot of skill instruction but also demands a regionally-accredited degree to be considered legitimate. It is handled very effectively online despite the fact that the instructor can’t see what the students are wearing.

    What about the registered nurse who needs to complete he BA in order to be promoted into a management position at her hospital? Does her professor need to know what’s on her iPod in order to teach her about the time value of money?

    Just as you are so supremely confident that the President will lose in a landslide Professor! I am equally sure that online degrees are here to stay. 

  20. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Robert McKay: Eight high quality posts in the last five days? Dr. Rahe, you are incredible and you spoil us here at Ricochet! I hope your students realize how very fortunate they are. · 37 minutes ago

    I’m in the hospital. What else can I do?