Distant and discontent: the downsides of digital learning

Despite many advances, online programmes suffer from technical faults and a dispiriting lack of interaction, as two scholars found

August 18, 2016
Pixelated bust of Socrates
Source: Getty

We hear a great deal about the wondrous new world of digital higher education. One recent contributor to Times Higher Education, for example, described how he had transformed his teaching practice through “a more fluid and continuous process of creation and interaction” carried out almost entirely online (“To boldly go”, Opinion, 28 April).

Yet there has now been a retreat from some of the initial enthusiasm about massive open online courses. And what if the more general hype about digital education often outstrips the reality? What happens when servers crash, connections time out, video links fail and other technical problems undermine all the promised benefits of online pedagogy?

Here we offer two cautionary tales from the front line to raise awareness of some of the challenges. An anonymous academic describes his first, highly unsatisfactory experiences of “fibre-optic education” – and how he and his students finally managed to overcome its limitations and rediscover “an age-old form of dialogue” that goes back to the ancient Greeks. Equally sobering is another anonymous account of what happened when two very different institutions set up a joint distance education course. The digital revolution in education may be here to stay, but there are many dispiriting (and expensive) pitfalls for the unwary.

Matthew Reisz

Pixelated painting of Plato
Alamy/iStock montage

The students and I talked candidly, personally, about the alienation of distance learning. Why, we asked, were students happy to spend money on an experience that was, on so many levels, dehumanising?

The class had actually – all things considered – been going pretty well. We’d spent the better part of an hour “chatting” about the Platonic dialogues. Socrates, I’d explained, had been deeply worried about the education of Athenian youth. I was just about to ask them to explain the importance of the Socratic method, the method of question-and-answer that underpins every good philosophy class.

But then the students disappeared from my computer screen. I vanished, too. The little box in the right-hand corner where I could be seen live and in Technicolor went black. I was left staring at an error message that told me something I already knew: Connection Failed.

Last term, I broke a long-standing commitment that I had made to myself never to teach an online course. This was at the night school of a decent university in the US Midwest. Before I began teaching there, I had regarded it as a cash cow. But over the years I came to understand the pedagogic value of continuing education and to love the students who were just as engaged as the 20-year-olds I taught at the day school. It is this engagement – more than the transmission of any particular set of truths – that drew me as a student to the humanities and has made my life as a professor deeply meaningful.

In my general vision of education, I tend to follow the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead in believing that it should indeed foster “expert knowledge” for particular professions, but that this needs to be complemented by what he called “culture”. Education is not about programming minds but rather about cultivating flourishing human beings. For Whitehead, two things were necessary for this: “the activity of thought” and “the receptiveness to humane feeling”. The liberal arts, at their best, encourage such activity and receptiveness. It was this intellectual background that had made me pledge to avoid the lucrative, but seemingly meaningless, business of online teaching.

Yet last summer I heard that the university had adopted a new web interface that allowed students to meet their professors every week, screen to screen, by way of a videoconference. I was intrigued and decided to try a pedagogic experiment: could one foster Whitehead’s idea of “culture” via fibre optics? The answer, it turns out, is not straightforward.

In the first week of term, it became clear that it would not be possible to see all 15 of my students in real time. I crashed the server the first night in my futile attempt to do so. Face-to-face pedagogy was going to be impossible, so I allowed my students to turn off their video feeds but kept mine on. This monologue approach to education led to a good deal of self-loathing. My normal classes are highly personal. I depend on reading my students – to discern whether they are bored to tears or on the verge of a breakthrough – in real time. I cold-call students who have checked out, and I pull struggling students aside after class to make sure that they are all right. As I gave up on the video interface, I also gave up on this intimate approach to teaching. I imagined my students watching TV, drinking a beer or going for a bike ride while they “attended” my “class”. These weren’t likely scenarios, but they weren’t impossible – and this possibility did something rather destructive to my self-conception as a teacher.

As teachers, we come to love our tried and true methods of instruction. Some of us are natural-born lecturers; others gravitate to discussion. Whatever we do, we eventually become comfortable doing it. My brief excursion into the world of online teaching forced me to broaden my classroom skill set. I discovered that I relied too heavily on the Socratic method of teaching – the question-and-answer process that keeps things on the move – and had to make my lectures considerably snappier and more interesting. I had to remember long-forgotten jokes and examples that had been replaced in my in-person classes with free-form discussion. Instead of doing selective cold calls, I had to set my stopwatch and every two minutes carry out what became known as “scattershot cold calls”, questions that I posed to a number of students at once. In the end, this probably elicited more discussion, at least in terms of the numbers of students participating.

But evidence of participation is not, as we all know, the same as genuine engagement. I couldn’t help but feel that my students’ comments were as forced and mechanical as the stopwatch that I used to elicit them. I recognised that they were actively thinking, but I was fairly confident that I’d yet to inspire Whitehead’s “receptiveness to humane feeling”. Everything felt like my keyboard – still cold and rigid.

Usually, when I’m face to face, I get to know students well enough to get my pedagogical claws into something that worries or excites them on a visceral level. As professors in the humanities, this is what our job, at its best, amounts to: finding a way to teach Chaucer or Goethe or Hegel to young adults who are not always inclined to care about their studies but still care about something. On rare and meaningful occasions, I can tap into this “something” and use it to help students to understand – no, feel – that the humanities speak simultaneously to their particular cares and the human condition. At least that is usually my hope. In my online class, however, that hope was fading quickly.

So in November, in the place in the autumn semester where classes go to die, I made a last-ditch effort to save ours.

In truth, the question that at least partially revived the course looked at first as if it might destroy it. “What’s wrong”, I cleared my throat and looked at my largely empty screen, “with this course? What’s wrong with this online education?”

Usually I had to wait a few seconds for my students to respond, for the little emoji icon of a hand to pop up next to their name. Not this time. I’d finally hit a nerve. Deep down in every online student there is a well of insecurity about the education they are paying for, and, with a bit of finesse, it is possible to plumb this insecurity to good effect. The conversation lasted three hours, well beyond the formal end of class. The students didn’t want to go “home” (even though they were already home), and we talked candidly, personally, for the first time all term, about the alienation of distance learning. What would Plato think about webinars; Goethe about Dropbox; Sylvia Plath about PowerPoint? And, more seriously, why were today’s students satisfied, even happy, to spend their money on an experience that was, on so many levels, dehumanising?

At times hilarious, at others thoroughly gutting, the discussion ranged over the authors we’d slogged through for the past two months. In the end, I was the one who went to my refrigerator for a beer while my students laid their plans to write a letter to the dean of continuing education protesting about the general inadequacy of their classes. I wasn’t going to be hired back next term. But I didn’t particularly care. Something had actually happened in class.

The irony of this class, which turned out to be a turning point, was not lost on my students: only in criticising their fibre-optic education were my students able to overcome it, to participate in an age-old form of dialogue at the root of the Western philosophical tradition. Socrates inherits the Delphic oracle’s imperative to “know thyself” and chides his interlocutors for not obeying the command. Philosophy and the humanities more generally are deeply self-referential, but not in a navel-gazing way; they are engaged in the practice of self-cultivation by means of self-critique. Socrates’ dissatisfaction with Athenian education fomented confrontation, but only in the service of constructive ends – as a way of coming to terms with the institutions that impeded personal and cultural growth. For Socrates, it was the rote memorisation of the Homeric poems; today, it’s the mindless PowerPoint presentations of an emoji culture. Together, my students and I had tuned in long enough to feel a pang of regret about our situation and resolved to rage against the dying of education’s light.

Two months later, the term ended. So, too, did my career as an online instructor. Regardless of the money involved – and it is truly great for the amount of work that is required – it just wasn’t worth it. I happily went back to my in-person life.

Part of this is picking up groceries, which I did last week at a local Trader Joe’s grocery store on the lake. I was looking for frozen food, in one of those muzak-filled, fluorescently lit aisles that David Foster Wallace describes as the least pleasurable places in the modern age. But then I heard a voice, soft and tender, at my shoulder. He knew my name. And my face. I was his teacher, he told me. I scanned my memory of five, 10, 15 years: absolutely nothing. I did not know his face at all.

But he was adamant, and sincere. “Your class was the best,” he said. “It convinced me to go back to school. No more online courses for me.” We hugged in the most personal of anonymous goodbyes.

The author, an English teacher from the American Midwest, wishes to remain anonymous.

Pixelated painting of Plato
Alamy/iStock montage

No real resources were  ever put in; training was trial and error; and we were woefully understaffed. When things went wrong, as they often did, we had no organised method for re-establishing dropped connections. This caused students to  leave and often not return

After just over a decade, an ill-fated experiment in distance education has come to an end.

The plan was to offer a joint professional programme to about 200 students with a university more than 100 miles away. We anticipated saving time and money, using the most heralded technology of online education. In the event, distance education turned out to be a fantasy foisted upon our faculty that ultimately morphed into a fraud perpetrated on our fee-paying students. We are pleased, and our students are ecstatic, that the programme has now been discontinued.

First of all, it exacerbated the insurmountable problems of a merger between a college at a comprehensive undergraduate university and a college at a discipline-specific graduate school. Combining our programmes was probably folly, but we believed that we had the students’ interests in common. We dismissed the fact that their students were, on average, 20 years old with no college degrees, while ours were older and mainly degree holders. Stark differences in maturity were shockingly amplified by distance education. Younger students treated it like YouTube; older students railed about the lack of faculty engagement, glitches and poor audio quality. Yet both groups were adamant that if they had wanted an online degree, they’d have signed up for one, instead of paying expensive tuition fees for a virtual learning experience.

We soldiered on, leaning on distance education technology for cross-campus interactions. At least we would not have to commute to another site for group meetings! But the anticipated efficiency was undermined by the fact that their faculty were chiefly nine-month hires, while we had a presence all year round. Thus, key faculty were missing for many summer meetings.

The technical problems proved huge. Connections timed out during critical conversations and reconnection was often impossible. Scheduled meetings did not occur because we could not locate the other party on their campus. When we did connect, we often had audio but no video, or vice versa. Soon, misunderstandings and poor communication poisoned many cross-college faculty interactions, and trust in college leadership eroded. Productivity diminished, and people became mysteriously difficult to contact.

With our initial optimism dissipated, we took dismal comfort in the idea that our students would be united in their shared horror of distance education. Alas, this was not to be. Instead, distance education promulgated a tribal “us versus them” mentality among the students, who inundated faculty with emails about fairness. Every minute difference between campuses was perceived as purposeful injustice and favouritism. Mild incivility became the norm because unprofessional conduct 100 miles away cannot be disciplined effectively. Students sensed our helplessness and formed collectives of silence when we attempted to sanction rudeness during a class.

Faculty with the most dramatic teaching styles were virtually tethered to the floor to stay “in frame” for the video transmission lest they be reduced to a disembodied voice. Less powerful personalities suffered, too – any wit and repartee that were apparent in a traditional environment were lost to the ether – and began to attract waning student populations within the programme’s first weeks. Those with least facility in English suffered most, losing the advantage of body language that the students had previously relied on to decipher a difficult accent.

When the majority of a course was taught from one of the two sites, students at the other one were left feeling cheated. The grades of those at the remote site were always a little lower than the scores on the campus with the lion’s share of the teaching. Faculty may have felt less responsibility for distant students as well; after all, relationships that foster mutual respect are difficult to nurture when neither party has met.

Even so, we were required to present a unified front, to “make it work”. We’d had no formal distance education training, but undeterred (and mildly threatened) we drummed up fresh courage each year, riding on the wave of enthusiasm of our incoming students, and tried just one more time. In retrospect, we were either naive optimists or just unable to learn from experience. We slowly awakened to our college’s apparent lack of value to our university. No real resources were ever put into distance education; faculty training was trial and error; and we were woefully understaffed. Thus, when distance education failed, as it often did, we had no organised method for re-establishing dropped connections. This caused students to leave the room and often not return to campus.

For 10 years, we fielded petty grumbles from students about distance education but never solicited meaningful feedback. I therefore decided to ask students to evaluate the system by responding to a series of questions and a free-answer survey. More than 800 individual complaints revealed that they were unhappier than we were. Students gave me artful descriptions of the loss of non-verbal communication, the impersonal nature of their learning experience and the lack of post-test comments on exam material. Others decried the lack of a relationship with professors.

Some students thought that we used distance education because we could not hire local instructors. Others believed that distance education was a method for covering courses at minimal faculty inconvenience. They explained their absences, too. When a lecture was transmitted from the remote campus, local students shopped online, ate or talked to each other or on the phone. Thus, poor attendance had two causes: remote depersonalisation and local distractions when they did attend.

Worse, students were amazed at our lack of technological acumen: how could faculty fail to master distance education and still keep their jobs? When faculty “forgot” to interact with the distant campus, students simply quit participating. They believed that they were interrupting a live talk for “other” students, and the five-second time delay did not help. Hearing-impaired students were disenfranchised, too: lip-reading was not available for remote lectures, and fuzzy distortion ruined many learning experiences. The conclusion was solid: we were spending time and energy on a technology that was serving no one. As one student summarised the situation: “Not all new technology represents an advancement for education.”

The author is an associate professor at a US university.


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Reader's comments (2)

I think the authors of these two articles make some very fair points, the key ones were lack of investment and failure of technology. However, online, distance learning doesn't have to be this way - I have successfully taken part in an online Masters degree (it was Digital Education) where the sense of community beat the face-to-face experience of another university from which I had transferred, hands down! Students took part from all over the world and the sense of comradeship was palpable - we used a variety of methods to communicate - Second Life, Twitter, Skype, Adobe Connect and dialogic blogging. This was obviously very time-intensive for the staff - we 'met' virtually once or twice a week and also had online discussion forums, as well as personal tutors, with whom we had weekly 'conversations' within our blogs. I was so stimulated and inspired by this experience that two years ago I embarked on a distance learning PhD at the same institution. The secret is investment, as your two authors point out - investment in resources, staffing and technology. However, in the final analysis, all the technology did was enable me to attend a very prestigious university which is hundreds of miles away, something I would not have been able to do without it.
The first professor sounds like a good, engaging, rare teacher, encouraging inquisitiveness and critical thinking. Most higher education is not this interactive, with information flowing chiefly in one direction, e.g., the professor who authors the textbook used in class is god. This first author's teaching style does not lend itself to online learning and his students would suffer lower educational quality by not learning from him in-person. This is not a flaw in online learning since the goal is to provide education to more people - in more countries, in a wider economic range, and to those for which distance or time would prevent them from attending classes. The issues presented by the second instructor are all related to early adoption issues that were never resolved. The colleges didn't really commit to online learning despite the hopes of teachers and students, i.e., not fixing the technological issues, not learning best practices for online learning, not providing supportive platforms for students, not teaching professors how to teach on video (there's an art to it). The two colleges probably thought that instruction was the main part of distance learning, when in fact, it was only one small part. Neither accounts adequately discount the numerous advantages of online education. They list drawbacks that can be individually remedied. Fewer students will desire or be able to afford in-person college educations with personable professors like the first author. More institutions of higher learning will have to seriously pursue online offerings if they wish to retain or grow student numbers. Online education isn't something a college can just throw up against the wall to see what sticks; there are many technological, pedagogical, and psychological considerations to increase learning success and minimize learner frustration. Despite criticisms of edX and Coursera, these learning platforms provide sophisticated course offerings from numerous international universities. Online learning isn't going away and its quality and variety continue to improve.