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A recent article by Dr. Sky Gilbert, research chair in creative writing and theatre studies at the University of Guelph, offers some critical thought and questions for those considering online education. His main point is that true learning is best achieved through spontaneous discussion in a physical classroom, stating that “We don’t learn unless we can interact with others, unless we have real conversations and real experiences”.
Dr. Gilbert’s article is passionate and emotional. He cites the “excitement and disappointment, the frustration and fury, of involved discussion,” as critical for learning. And while I would argue that online discussions can be just as heated as in person discussions, he does have a point about the spontaneity of discussion. Online education has made leaps forward in becoming more involved, with universities creating their programs to have interactive elements and discussion boards. However, interacting from behind a screen offers a more detached learning experience, providing a wall not only between the student and teacher, but also between the students themselves.
As a professor of creative writing and theatre, it is easy to see where Dr. Gilbert gets his viewpoint. He is teaching in a medium which thrives on engagement. Writing and acting are emotional and powerful art forms where practitioners put a part of themselves into the works they create. For creative studies, it is easy to see how the detachment of online education is a huge drawback.
But what happens when you take away emotion and subjectivity? There is no right answer in writing, but there is certainly a correct answer in mathematics and hard sciences. While this is purely anecdotal, I have friends with math degrees whom professors saw only on the first day of class and the final exam. The emotional, involved class discussion is less of a tool in objective studies.
Online education is not for everyone. While some students do thrive on discussions and spontaneity, there are those who prefer a more analytical approach. Online discussion boards offer the shy a chance to contribute, instead of being drowned out by the confident and boisterous in class. While people learn from having their ideas challenged, and grow from debate, the advantages of online educations are simply greater in some fields. The ability to offer courses to more students for less cost, the tools that online learning gives access to and the way that technology keeps evolving makes online learning promising for a well-educated future.
Dr. Gilbert is also concerned with the comodification of information. Search engines are built for profit, and Dr. Gilbert is worried that the “information”, which he adds quotation marks to, is information paid for by the highest bidder. Students in arts and social science programs are going to deal with loaded information and knowledge with hidden goals in their daily life. To say that information provided by a search engine is less valuable than information provided by a researcher concerned with his career or working for a think tank, which students are exposed to in a BA of Social Sciences program, is too simplistic. Students in arts programs will have to learn to critical understand knowledge and to search for their biases and purposes regardless of where they are getting the information, and while the professor student relationship offers a chance to cultivate these tools, too often are professors preaching their own ideologies rather than searching for the truth.
Yes, discussion is important. But insinuating that online education is less valuable than traditional education is too general. While there are many programs that benefit greatly from spontaneous interaction, there are just as many that do not. And when students are trying to fit in education with their busy lives, in today’s job market where a degree is seen so often as a necessity rather than an asset, when rising tuition costs are saddling students with back breaking debt, I welcome the spread of online education as a way to make education more accessible.
Online education is making strides forward to create more discussion, more interactivity, and more spontaneity. But can it ever replace physical learning as the zenith of education? I would love to hear the thoughts of students who are currently in online learning. Dr. Gilbert brings up some valid criticisms and thoughts on online education, and his point of view is essential to the evolving education system of the future. You can read his original opinion article here.
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