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.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ThePullmanns

    Dr. Rahe (if you ever manage to get all the way to this comment),

    The education I got at Hillsdale had convinced me of your argument before you arrived here to make it. I work in education policy and digital learning is some people’s next savior for the unwashed masses. The only counterargument I would extend is the same one made in the comments on the piece you link to: Ok, so perhaps a liberal education is the best, but many people simply cannot get the best. It’s too expensive. They’ve only realized it’s the best after having kids. Universities (and K12 schools) do not teem with the best offerings. For many, online education’s accessibility and offerings are far better than anything else available.

    So while I think it’s important to remind people of the best and hold it as an example, I think also that the best shouldn’t become a barrier to them getting as close to it as possible.

    (Incidentally, I wish I could do Hillsdale all over again! But, alas, we have kids and a mortgage.) –Joy

    • #91
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    @ThePullmanns

    One more thought. Tocqueville, as you well know, deeply thought about and expressed the ingrained democratic impulses of Americans. We don’t like to think that the best is out there to be had but some people cannot access it. Is democracy illiberal, then? (My answer: yes. Obviously. The U.S. is meant to be not a democracy, but a Republic.) But are our democratic tendencies such that we cannot at once see what is best and see that most cannot have it? (Again, my guess is yes. What, then?) –Joy

    • #92
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    @Skyler

    I’ve lost a lot of respect for Hillsdale today.  I used to hear people talk about them and was willing to hope that the good things were true, but it appears Hillsdale drinks its own koolaid.  I hope this thread is not a true reflection of the entire school.

    Liberal arts are important, but to say it’s the only “real” education is just absurd, snobbish, and ignorant.  Ignorance is not a trait normally ascribed to college professors and I’m shocked to feel the need to do so.

    • #93
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    @ThePullmanns

    It seems Skyler has epitomized my last comment.

    • #94
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    @Skyler

    Well, Pullmanns, a liberal arts education is certainly important, but if that’s all someone has, then their education is lacking.

    Too much of our government and society is run by people with only a liberal arts education when our society is built on science and engineering.  

    How many times have you met someone who is trying to come to grips with anthropogenic global warming and they just shrug at the math involved and believe what they are told because they have a liberal arts education and can’t understand the issues? They’ll sound convincing to each other though.

    How many times do people talk about medical policy and believe that immunizations cause sickness because they don’t understand the biology and science?  I suppose with that liberal arts education they should know a bit more about the history of disease, but that doesn’t seem to happen.

    Anyone can study history and make all kinds of whacky conclusions to fit their preformed agenda.  And many do.  A liberal arts degree by itself is generally meaningless because of the distortion and destruction of rational thought at our universities over the past hundred years.  

    • #95
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    @FreeRadical

    $30,000 per year at Hillsdale it is out of the price range of most parents to send their children to hear Dr. Rahe lecture (when he is out of the hospital and God willing back at work). English 101, basic history, calculus … can be much more efficiently taught on line. Higher level courses can be worthwhile to be in the flesh and worth paying top dollar for. Education is a major cost burden on families and costs have to be controlled before the bubble bursts.

    • #96
  7. Profile Photo Member
    @

    On another list, while discussing economics, I was wont to refer on occasion to things “going the way of the buggy whip.”  at one point a good friend who is also a horsewoman advised me that buggy whip manufacturers are still doing quite well; that it is a small market, but the now custom made whips are in very high demand by the upper end horse fanciers.  I stood corrected. There is still a buggy whip industry. It is just a niche industry that caters to a very small segment of the population and that, while significant to wealthy horse owners, is utterly insignificant in the lives of most Americans. 

    Notwithstanding the fact that I graduated from a selective, small, liberal arts college; notwithstanding the fact that I worked a career in higher education, I am persuaded that the Orwin/Rahe model of education is, in fact, the buggy whip industry circa 1910. Times change. Needs change. Forms change.

    • #97
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    @Foxfier
    Kofola

    I think you’re extremely naive if you think making everything digital is suddenly going to fix that issue. 

    *dryly* Yes, because that’s exactly what I was talking about when I pointed out that the bare-bones online class was better than the bare-bones classroom, especially when it’s something that consists of the teacher copying out of the book and setting down.

    Same way that I totally said we should do away with physical classes…oh, wait, I pointed out that some classes were better with a physical teacher.

    • #98
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    @Pseudodionysius
    Skyler: It is not only slander, but it shows a remarkable degree of ignorance as to what being an engineer, scientist, nurse or a doctor is.

    Science is not just learning techniques.  Engineering is not just copying methods.  Anyone who claims that is not educated. · 2 hours ago

    You seem to have a misunderstanding as to what the Liberal Arts constitute. And there seems to be a misconception that just because something involves technique (the greek “techne”) that it does not involve art, a mistake that no truly liberal soul would make. I don’t think Dr. Rahe is advancing that argument.

    You are aware that some of the best traditional liberal arts education is produced at military colleges aren’t you? 

    • #99
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    @Demaratus
    Skyler: It is not only slander, but it shows a remarkable degree of ignorance as to what being an engineer, scientist, nurse or a doctor is.

    Science is not just learning techniques.  Engineering is not just copying methods.  Anyone who claims that is not educated. · 2 hours ago

    So now we know where you stand on the Raphael versus Newton question?

    Greatness is not defined by “discovery” alone.  Engineering is an art, and art allows for greatness just like discovering new scientific information does.

    I wouldn’t rank Homer or Raphael below Newton or Einstein.

    Saying engineering is an art in most cases and not a science is not a slander.  It sounds like perhaps you’re just putting too much weight in the tokens “science” and “scientific” without considering the differences between science and art as practiced at the highest levels like those notables I just mentioned.

    Socrates through Plato said that Philosophy, love of wisdom, was the highest pursuit.  I don’t think anyone would confuse the normal work of a professional scientist or engineer with philosophy.  There may be philosophers in both those groups though, and we can be thankful for that as wisdom guides their work.

    • #100
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    @Pseudodionysius

    Liberal arts are important, but to say it’s the only “real” education is just absurd, snobbish, and ignorant. 

    I’m surprised at this comment. This seems to be a misunderstanding of both the word “liberal” and the word “art”. The artificial separation of the arts and sciences was a product of the 17th century Enlightenment and not only isn’t reflected in the curricula of many liberal arts schools (you can take a look at the University of Dallas for just one example) but I think even a cursory read of Jacques Barzun’s The House of Intellect would quickly disabuse anyone of the notion that pedantry is somehow a logical byproduct of a liberal arts education. 

    • #101
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    @Pseudodionysius

    our society is built on science and engineering.

    Could you please elaborate on this? 

    • #102
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    @Demaratus
    Pseudodionysius

    Liberal arts are important, but to say it’s the only “real” education is just absurd, snobbish, and ignorant. 

    I’m surprised at this comment. This seems to be a misunderstanding of both the word “liberal” and the word “art”. The artificial separation of the arts and sciences was a product of the 17th century Enlightenment and not only isn’t reflected in the curricula of many liberal arts schools (you can take a look at the University of Dallas for just one example) but I think even a cursory read of Jacques Barzun’s The House of Intellect would quickly disabuse anyone of the notion that pedantry is somehow a logical byproduct of a liberal arts education.  · 0 minutes ago

    Yes.

    • #103
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    @Pseudodionysius

     I am persuaded that the Orwin/Rahe model of education is, in fact, the buggy whip industry circa 1910.

    If you would read John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, you would see that he predicted the implosion of the modern university into a multiversity and he described how and why it would happen. What you also seem to be forgetting is that the vast majorities of universities aren’t what they claim to be. By definition, there should be relatively few true universities and many more professional and trade schools. 

    • #104
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    @Kofola
    Foxfier

    Kofola

    I think you’re extremely naive if you think making everything digital is suddenly going to fix that issue. 

    *dryly* Yes, because that’s exactly what I was talking about when I pointed out that the bare-bones online class was better than the bare-bones classroom, especially when it’s something that consists of the teacher copying out of the book and setting down.

    Same way that I totally said we should do away with physical classes…oh, wait, I pointed out that some classes were better with a physical teacher. · 9 minutes ago

    There are no shortage of people on here arguing precisely for such. I’m sorry if I wrongly implied that you were one of them. I edited my original comment appropriately.

    • #105
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    @Pseudodionysius

    Too much of our government and society is run by people with only a liberal arts education when our society is built on science and engineering.  

    On the contrary, too much of our government and society is run by pedants. Pedants can have Phds in sociology as well as Phds in engineering or molecular biology or MDs. Chapter 9 of The House of Intellect is called The Language of Learning and Pedantry

    • #106
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    @Pseudodionysius

    How many times have you met someone who is trying to come to grips with anthropogenic global warming and they just shrug at the math involved and believe what they are told because they have a liberal arts education and can’t understand the issues? 

    I’ve also met scientists and engineers who believe global warming exists, that a vast right wing conspiracy controls the banking system, and that eugenics would solve a great deal of our problems.

    “Reason has a wax nose, you can make it point in any direction” was a medieval maxim for a reason.

    • #107
  18. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Pseudodionysius

    Also, if you read the article, you’ll notice that Orwin is advancing an ancient argument that education (educere) is the art of forming the human soul. I don’t know about you, but I want my statesmen formed in a particular way, and that particular way includes mimesis.

    • #108
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    @Pseudodionysius

    “This book is called The Art of Teaching because I believe that teaching is an art, not a science. Teaching involves emotions, which cannot be systematically appraised and employed, and human values, which are quite outside the grasp of science. You must throw your heart into it, you must realize that it cannot all be done by formulas, or you will spoil your work, and your pupils, and yourself.”

    The Art of Teaching, Gilbert Highet

    • #109
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    @CrowsNest

    I suspected that the thread might take the turn from the more narrow question that Prof. Rahe raised in his original post about the limits of a particular technology to replicate the seminar to the place we’ve come now. That it took that turn is unsurprising therefore, although some of the acrimony  is striking at this point.

    Part of a liberal education is learning what is defensible about it, and how to defend that education and with arguments. We do this constantly, normally starting with the charges raised against it and in particular the instance of Socrates execution. If we have written in a shorthand which you find offensive, it is only because we are already extremely familiar with our arguments and yours and may be eliding over important points of emphasis. 

    At the same time, I fear that some of you have brought some old resentments onboard from some previous bad experience that has caused you to doubt or reject liberal education as such–some nutty Leftist professor or some exasperating young know-it-all who in fact is completely ignorant of the way the world works.

    • #110
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    @donaldtodd

    Since this issue is pushing me, I thought about it as I walked.

    In a normal home, people gather at the dinner table to eat and talk.  They look at the day, express considerations, and go through give and take.  The dinner table is a learning place, especially for the kids as they learn from their parents and older siblings.

    In older societies, people would congregate at the city center or the market and pass information.

    I don’t specifically know that this is the genesis for a classroom, but I would not be surprised.  I believe human nature, as well as human custom, may be the reason for this.  It appeals to the social side of us.

    • #111
  22. Profile Photo Inactive
    @CrowsNest

    To start with, having gotten a liberal arts degree from some college is not the same thing as having received a liberal education–all of us who have received the latter often sat in classes exasperated that all but a few of our fellow students were not necessarily fully engaged with the material, nevermind any bias shown by a particular professor.

    Secondly, we have already defended the Maths and Sciences as forming part of that education. Many doctors attend undergraduate Pre-Med programs that require a strong mixture of liberal arts material and hard science. We think it necessary that a liberally educated man have a grasp of the theoretical sciences underpinning the more practical ones. 

    We also recognize that engineering is not simply the application of some stale technique or worn-out method to a particular problem. We strongly recognize that the practical and applied sciences require a tremendous amount of theoretical understanding, mental acuity– brilliance even in some cases–innovation, art, and trial and error. We are often grateful and occasionally in awe of its results.

    • #112
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    @CrowsNest

    Furthermore, to say that one’s education is complete upon receiving any degree–engineering or liberal, is sadly mistaken.

    The liberal man, as both Prof. Orwin and Prof. Rahe, has merely received in his college years–assuming he’s received an education and not merely a degree–a license to learn. As Orwin says, we merely follow a fellow student (him, the professor) who is a bit further along in his education than we are. But we continue learning our entire lives, and we benefit from what has been conserved and has come down to us from the teachers who are not themselves pupils any longer (i.e. the great minds).

    The engineer will require many years of further training with colleagues applying what he has learned and pushing its boundaries to further the knowledge of his art and produce ever better products. On occasion, this production even leads to an increase in humankind’s knowledge of the physical world.

    While we stand in awe of the success of this capacity, we are also aware it is not an unmixed good. Not a few of the most terrible regimes in history have claimed the sanctions of science for their horrors.

    • #113
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    @Skyler
    Paul A. Rahe

    As I said, liberal education is not suitable for everyone. · 2 hours ago

    Punch back twice as hard?  That’s a snobbish answer.

    You can get a liberal education from other sources besides a university. In fact, writing your thoughts and reading answers can lead to more reasoned debate and education.  

    The defense of brick and mortar schools is essentially snobbery and protection of a brand.  “I went to Hahvahd and I think that makes me special, so I have to claim that only Hahvahd can produce the greatest minds.”

    Nonsense.  And let’s be honest, liberal education has failed this country the past fifty or sixty years, if not longer.  The intellectuals of this country have rejected capitalism and individual freedom and have replaced it with a culture that supports socialism and statism.  I think your argument would hold more weight if this were not the obvious result of believing that a “liberal’ education is so superior.

    And a liberal education that doesn’t include rigorous math and science is not very liberal in its scope anyway.  

    • #114
  25. Profile Photo Inactive
    @CrowsNest
    Skyler: The defense of brick and mortar schools is essentially snobbery and protection of a brand.  “I went to Hahvahd and I think that makes me special, so I have to claim that only Hahvahd can produce the greatest minds.”

    Nonsense.  And let’s be honest, liberal education has failed this country the past fifty or sixty years, if not longer.

    It strikes me that you might not be aware just how critical Profs Rahe and Orwin (and many others educated in the same manner) are of the current educational establishment and the depth of its corruption and failure. 

    In fact, much of the criticism of that failure from within the university comes from men like this–and it begins with a clear-eyed view of what the university is, what’s its purpose and mission should be, and what genuine versus spurious liberal education actually consists of.

    Moreover, no one has suggested in this thread that an Ivy League school is somehow necessary or sufficient for brilliance (it is not), or that one can only be educated by attending one (Prof. Rahe certainly doesn’t teach at one. I didn’t attend one).

    • #115
  26. Profile Photo Member
    @MarkWilson

    Crow’s Nest, in light of the inevitable shift of topic, you’re making the most sense of anyone on this thread.  On the other hand, I hope you also understand why Professor Rahe’s comment, “For the most part, what goes on in engineering schools is training in certain techniques,” appears to be a serious slight against, and diminution of, engineers in the context of this post.

    • #116
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    @Skyler
    Paul A. Rahe

    I agree entirely. For the sort of work that you are talking about, one needs to be well trained. · 1 hour ago

    Aristotle and Plato both thought the most important people in a society were its philosophers.  Yet, the world largely moves on without them and their great conversation through the ages ever having much impact.

    Philosophers didn’t give us refrigeration or the internal combustion engine — which each have done more to transform human existence than anything Hegel wrote.  Philosophers did give us the concept of the super man and racial purity and other dangerous ideas that caused millions to be uselessly murdered.

    Perhaps we’d be better off with more “training” and less “educating” by your terms.  Right and wrong aren’t that hard to figure out, and we simply don’t need snobs sitting around pretending they know better than the rest of us what is obvious.  

    I am, whether you think I am or not.  Descartes was a fool, but a fine mathematician.  His math has done more for mankind than his silly Meditation on First Philosophy ever will.  And I can study him without a brick classroom, though I’d rather not.

    • #117
  28. Profile Photo Member
    @MarkWilson
    Paul A. Rahe

    Preprofessional and professional study is training. It is not education. If you cannot discern the distinction, then you miss the point of my post entirely.

    Discussions like this one often contain the caveat “Oh, but engineering and science are different.”  Professor Rahe, how do you view engineering and science in the context of this conversation?  I ask because I’m in the middle of an online Master’s program in aerospace engineering from Stanford.  Do you consider that not to be education, but merely training?  Engineering is not assembling bicycles.

    • #118
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    @Skyler
    Crow’s Nest

    It strikes me that you might not be aware just how critical Profs Rahe and Orwin (and many others educated in the same manner) are of the current educational establishment and the depth of its corruption and failure. 

    Then why do they defend them so irrationally?  The only way to counter their decay is to build a new system, a new foundation, a new way of educating people.  That new way starts with the idea that an education can come from another source.  

    I don’t know the good professor, but he doth protest too much.  It is pure snobbery to say that anything except a pure liberal arts course of study or indoctrination is “training” rather than an education.

    • #119
  30. Profile Photo Inactive
    @CrowsNest
    Skyler: Then why do they defend them so irrationally?  The only way to counter their decay is to build a new system, a new foundation, a new way of educating people.  That new way starts with the idea that an education can come from another source.  

    Neither are the professors irrationally defending the university, nor I them. Examine the character of what they are defending about the university. It isn’t the building, its the experience. It isn’t the facilities, it is the relationships. It isn’t any old books, it these which are more worthy than those.

    As I have said previously, the “way out” in my opinion is not a new way at all. It is instead a return to the proper understanding of what an education is, and is for. 

    The name university itself indicates this character–it is oneness, a single thing, coherent, whole and ordered. It aims to produce a certain sort of man. Mathematics and Science have always been considered to be part of a proper education. The same Plato you have expressed contempt for would turn away students from his Academy unless they had already mastered geometry; it was prerequisite. 

    • #120
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