Stop the Machine: Why We Should Resist Online Learning

News at Home
tags: higher education, public health, colleges and universities, COVID-19

Jonathan Rose is William R. Kenan Professor of History at Drew University. His books include Readers’ Liberation, The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor, and The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes.

Photo Damian Gadal, 2010. CC-BY-2.0




Now that the Covid epidemic has forced universities to go online, some voices want to make this a permanent state of affairs. In the Wall Street Journal, Eric Mazur (a Harvard physics professor), Bob Kerrey (formerly a US Senator and president of the New School) and Ben Nelson (founder and CEO of the for-profit Minerva Project, which purports to offer online instruction superior to an Ivy League education) argue that “Higher-education leaders should seize this period of upheaval as an opportunity to focus on learning.” Evidently these three gentlemen are under the impression that college teachers and administrators never thought to focus on learning. They urge us to “shift to student-centered instruction,” when in fact they recommend tech-centered instruction. And they say that we must “refocus on student outcomes, on the universal skills that will enable graduates to respond to the next crisis, to create resilience and adapt to unfamiliar territory, and to help lead society forward.” Reading these vacuous platitudes, one has to wonder whether the Minerva Project teaches its students how to express themselves meaningfully on paper – or on a screen for that matter.


One problem with the Mazur/Kerrey/Nelson logic (if it can be called that) is that high school seniors aren’t buying it. Charlie Baker of Millburn, New Jersey, who has been admitted to Vanderbilt University, says he will probably take a year off if the college remains online in the fall. “I was excited to live somewhere else and be more independent and get to know people on my floor and in my classes. That’s the college experience I’ve been looking forward to,” he says. “I need to be there in person. It allows me to understand the material much better. [Online teaching] wouldn’t be a waste of money, but it definitely does make college less valuable.” His classmate Jamie Serruto will attend online classes at Fordham University, but with great reluctance: “It really, really stinks, but we are all in the same boat.” Cailla Cruz of Westchester, New York is definitely unhappy with the online classes she had to take this spring: “It’s a difficult thing to do, taking math class in bed. The work gets done, but it’s not the same.”


Having just finished teaching such a course, I have to agree emphatically with Ms. Cruz. On-line courses are a poor second-best. When the instructor is just a face on a screen, he cannot provoke, dramatize, wade into the classroom, and get into students’ faces. Discussion dries up. Presenting visuals and videos is possible but awkward.  It’s just not the same.


Consider, as an illustration, my department’s capstone seminar, which is required of all majors. The students are expected to do exactly what professional historians do: write an original research paper based on primary sources and a review of the secondary literature. They must start with a research prospectus and then produce four successive drafts. These are discussed in class, and students are encouraged to offer constructive criticisms of each other’s projects. The students must also present their penultimate drafts at the “History Happening,” a mini-conference, open to the public, where faculty serve as commentators. Whether they major in history, theater, art, or music, students are motivated to do their best when know they must perform in public. But this time around we had to seriously truncate the course and cancel the History Happening. This seminar teaches the research, writing, and public speaking skills that students will need no matter what future technology may bring, but it requires a lot of group interaction and individual attention, which are very difficult online. And how could remote education possibly work for the theatre arts and the laboratory sciences?


Consider also all the education that takes place outside of the classroom. Students come to college to stage plays, join musical groups, display their artwork, organize political protests, play on (or cheer on) athletic teams, listen to controversial speakers (assuming they haven’t been disinvited), and engage in interminable bull sessions debating everything under the sun. At Cambridge University, the “Cambridge Apostles” carried on what has essentially been a two-hundred-year-long bull session, and its alumni included major members of the Bloomsbury Group: John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, and Leonard Woolf. That extracurricular ferment doesn’t only happen in elite universities. At City College in the Great Depression, students argued furiously over Stalin and Trotsky in the cafeteria, and several of them went on to become eminent New York intellectuals: Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer.


That subversive crossfertilization simply can’t be Zoomed. In his 1909 dystopian tale “The Machine Stops”, E. M. Forster (a Cambridge Apostle) predicted with astonishing accuracy the locked-down tech world we live in today. Everyone shelters in his or her little cubicle, communicates via screens, has stuff delivered in, and almost never ventures outside. In effect, Amazon and Microsoft have taken over everything, and because there is no real human interaction or intellectual exchange, the whole system eventually collapses.


In a survey by the nonprofit mental health organization Active Minds, 80% of college students reported that the Covid crisis has negatively affected their psychological health. Obviously they are worried about personal finances and the virus itself, but they are also stressed by online instruction, and they sorely miss the supportive community of a college campus. “People really crave that person-to-person contact, maybe more than they realized”, says Jaclyn Friedman-Lombardo, director of counseling services at Montclair State University. “This generation is very, very accustomed to screens. But they don’t feel quite as engaged online.”


College is where students make lifelong friends and often meet lifetime spouses. They invite themselves over to cafeteria tables and chat up potential romantic partners. Colleges of course also offer sex education, most of which takes place outside of the classroom. Needless to say, there are plenty of online instructional materials on this topic – but it’s just not the same.


How many healthy, curious 18-year-olds want to live with their parents and work all day at a computer? A recent survey by the educational research firm SimpsonScarborough finds that, if colleges only offer online instruction this fall, fully 20 percent of high school seniors will not enroll, and 14 percent of current college students will not reenroll.  Add to that the economic fallout of the Covid Depression: the out-of-work parents who can no longer afford higher education for their children, the severe budget cuts that cash-strapped state legislatures will inevitably impose on public colleges.


 Given all that, SimpsonScarborough is now predicting a “domestic undergraduate enrollment decline…that would be truly catastrophic for our industry.” Colleges should therefore make every effort (including lobbying state governors) to reopen in the fall with a full range of on-campus courses and extracurricular activities. It never made much sense to send all our students home, given that under-25s account for just over one-tenth of one percent of all Covid deaths. Of course we should observe reasonable social distancing, and those faculty who are older and medically vulnerable should be granted the option of taking a leave of absence or teaching their courses online. But I for one (at age 67) would choose to be with my students. After all, I would run fewer risks than first responders and health care workers. Getting out of the house and back to the classroom would probably be good for my mental and physical well-being. And in any case, I believe that education is an essential business.