Will online education lead to the death of conversation?

Students who can critique ideas and generate sound, reasoned arguments in real time will be better prepared to find success after they graduate, says Rebekah Wanic

Rebekah Wanic's avatar
Nova Southeastern University
12 Dec 2022
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Is online education killing conversation

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Successful classroom discussions begin long before anyone speaks
4 minute read
Group of students taking part in a classroom debate

For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.” – Margaret Heffernan

Discourse, discussion, debate – all imply the interactive process of sharing ideas, listening, processing and responding to a counterpoint, and doing so repeatedly. This is how we learn, this is how we challenge, defend, update and replace theories and paradigms in pursuit of progress, and ultimately how we grow to be better and stronger as both individuals and as a society. Nowhere should such activity be more paramount than in higher education. Such discussion is intellectually healthy and, provided evidence-based and reasoned arguments win out over those based solely in ideology, this interchange will result in positive adjustments. 

Over the past few decades, an ever-increasing number of educational institutions have incorporated online courses as part of their curricular offerings, with some universities existing mostly or solely online. There are many advocates for online education, but a careful read shows most arguments begin with and largely settle on pragmatic appeal: that it offers students more flexibility in scheduling along with reduced costs. These are important considerations, particularly for returning learners who often balance competing demands of work, family and schooling. It is cautionary to note, however, that the primary argument does not centre on educational outcomes. In the spirit of debate, the goal here is to highlight what is problematically different about such courses: the loss of direct social interaction and the consequent death of conversation. 

When individuals engage with online content, it is often passively, viewing and scrolling through with the occasional comment or reply mixed in. Students accessing online courses often do so similarly, utilising habits developed from experience with social media and reinforced by schematic activation as the context and content type mimic these entertainment platforms. Online, asynchronous courses invite and sustain these behaviours in a way that in-person courses do not. 

For example, consider the difference between a recorded lecture and one delivered live. Viewing the recorded lecture does not require full attention, because it is available for review whenever one seeks to access it. As it streams, one can simultaneously use one’s phone or open another window to engage with different content. This is also possible in a classroom, of course, but there is at least some social pressure to stay on task in the presence of an instructor in a way that accessing content privately does not provide. 

Because of this tendency to multitask and divert attention, many have argued that providing access to recordings is a good thing. Students have the option to go back and review what was missed and refresh content that was not fully processed. The evidence on whether recorded or live lectures are best for exam performance is mixed, and it may depend, for example, on content difficulty or student aptitude

Regardless, a larger, metacurricular issue is that access to recordings likely changes engagement so as to damage the development of attentional control, something that is important in processing not only lecture content but also one’s ability to engage effectively in conversation. The recording provides no real incentive to engage in sustained attention, to tune in and stay on task or to challenge oneself to follow a train of thought as it is presented, and no opportunity to respond. 

Beyond processing content, the asocial manner in which much online material is delivered deprives students of the conversational interaction that can take place in the classroom between themselves and the instructor and themselves and their classmates. This impedes students from practising their ability to engage with and respond in real time to arguments and information – something that is important for developing advanced critical thinking. 

This is also the type of skill necessary for connection with individuals in the real, not digitally mediated, world. Consider how even with text conversations, one has the opportunity to consider, reconsider and edit before sending a message – and most texting apps allow you to delete or retract what was sent. This is a feature not present in live, in-person social interaction. Without practice, it is an ability that is easily lost. 

Many online courses seek to simulate the social aspects of classroom interaction by providing discussion boards to create a back-and-forth dialogue in written space. This is, however, a poor substitute for live interaction. Similar to texting, the posts can be edited and re-edited – a feature that can help students hone an argument, yes, but one that fails to mimic the time-limited and more agile nature of in-person interaction. In addition, the asynchronicity of the posts causes the dialogue to lack much of the meaningful repartee that makes live conversation enjoyable and challenging. And, mimicking much interaction on social media platforms, one often posts and either (1) gets no direct response, or (2) ignores or is unaware of a response, leaving the discussion to die as a one-sided proclamation.

Furthermore, the emotional tone and inflection that create the nuance associated with live speech does not carry over into these interactions. Such nuance can help generate self-reflection on the impact of one’s words or provide necessary and useful insight into the speaker’s intention or connection with their ideas. Thus, even if a discussion board were to parallel the synchronicity of live interaction, it would still be meaningfully different from face-to-face dialogue in significant ways. 

This is important because people seem particularly poor at managing their emotions these days, in particular in their interactions with others in digital space. The more emotional, snarky and negative a post is, the more staying power it has. Such circumstances are unlikely to support the cultivation of self-control and emotional maturity. Real conversation, directed at live companions, is much more likely to do so, not least by confronting the speaker with the consequences of their statements in real time. 

As a potential solution, simply requiring all students to take in-person courses is naive and impractical. Instead, institutions may consider requiring all graduates to take a certain number of courses in-person or synchronously online. Adjusting asynchronous courses to a hybrid model with some required “live” interaction, and discussion board requirements that encourage students to reply to comments on their posts, can promote the development of conversational skills. Finally, group assignments for online students can help foster social and intellectual exchange in the absence of a live classroom.

In sum, regardless of whether online courses are capable of providing students with the same objective knowledge transfer as in-person classroom instruction, they lack important metacurricular benefits. Students with the ability to critique ideas and generate sound and reasoned arguments in real time, who are self-reflective and accomplished listeners, and who have mastered the art of effective conversation will be better prepared to find success after they graduate. A society made up of such citizens is poised to do better than one without. As we move away from higher educational practices that foster discourse toward individualised and isolating online education, we must be willing to consider the consequences for students and society and whether we are willing to let conversations die.

Rebekah Wanic is an adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University, Florida, US. She is a social psychologist, leadership coach and blogger at PsychSkeptics who is interested in examining trends in higher education and psychology.

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