Online Education Revisited: Hillsdale's Online Western Heritage Course: My Lecture on The Greek Miracle
Back in August, when I was incarcerated at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, hoping that my lymphocele would dry up, I posted a piece regarding online education that stirred things up (it attracted 133 comments), and I followed up the next day with a piece defending philosophy against those inclined to think science the cat's pajamas. It drew an additional 96 comments.
I thought then, as I think now, that one can do a certain amount online -- but only a certain amount, and here is what I wrote:
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.
I have since then read Nathan Harden's impassioned endorsement of online education The End of the University as We Know It, and I was unmoved -- in part because I think that the real problem with higher education is that we are trying to educate everyone, which will not work; and in part because I had by that time had a bit of involvement with online education. To be precise, I had contributed two lectures to Hillsdale's Online Western Heritage Course. Here is the first of the two -- entitled The Greek Miracle. Its focus is the emergence of self-government in the eighth and seventh centuries B. C.
I have watched this a couple of times in the interim, and I like it. My only objection is that I cannot now correct a slip I made along the way -- when I said that Linear B writing survived on Crete (when, in fact, it survived only on Cyprus). I also like the fact that one can watch it twice or even thrice.
But it also lacks something that is important. What I have in mind is eye contact. There is a great deal of communication that takes place during a lecture as the lecturer and the students make eye contact at key moments. There is also something else missing. No one interrupts me to say, "Wait a minute. Is that really true?" Nor is there conversation at the end of class . . . and, even more important, outside of class.
I filmed two more lectures earlier this week for our upcoming Online American Heritage Course -- one on the coming of the American Revolution, the other on the Constitution and the Early Republic -- and one of the members of the film crew mentioned having had lunch in the student dining hall here. Everyone, he told me, was arguing about some issue that had come up in class. That was what it was like when I was a student back in the last millennium at Cornell and Yale, and that cannot be duplicated in an online environment.
But do not get me wrong. I think that if you were to take one of our online courses, which you can do by going here, signing up, and watching the lectures, you might well learn something, and you might enjoy the process. But here is my guess. At the end of the ten or eleven lectures, you would want to come here and take the full course -- which is, as it happens, why we do our online courses.