My daughter has been texting all weekend. She has respected my rule not to text during worship, meals, or late at night. Even within these guidelines, I find myself talking like a Saturday Night Live character named the Grumpy Old Man. The Grumpy Old Man skit involved Dana Carvey describing the good old days, when children did not have confounded cell phones. Throwing up my hands in frustration, I did what any modern mommy does. I turned to the internet. Watching the musical number “Telephone Hour” from the 1963 hit Bye Bye Birdie made me feel better. What did we do before cell phones? We tied up our household’s landline for hours, talking about vastly important teen crushes. At least I did.
I relate the story above, about telephones, in part to reassure readers that I am not against all technological communication. Most of the time, I am not a caricature of the Grumpy Old Professor. But, when a friend told me recently that the future of pedagogy is online education, I vowed to resist. I am as opposed to this form of the future as I would be if a friend told me that the future of sex is online, or that the future of worship is online, or that the future of our friendship is online. Learning – like friendship, worship, or sex – is a gift best shared with other human beings, face to face. A song from the musician Red Grammar puts it well: “It’s as simple a thing as the air that we breathe; we need time together.”
A school can avoid paying teacher salaries and basic benefits if they move toward distance education. This is the ostensible reason that children in Durham are “taking classes” online, with someone, somewhere, answering their typed-in questions. Money is also the ostensible reason that Christians are working online for degrees through my own institution. We sit in front of a computer, skyping, which means that we awkwardly see one another on a screen. The display looks sort of like the television game show “Hollywood Squares.” I submit that the loss is not worth the monetary gain. What we lose in online learning is fundamental to the gift of teaching.
I have taught a seminar on a Danish philosopher named Søren Kierkegaard ten times during my sixteen years teaching at Duke. We have read the same books* together, each iteration of this seminar, but every semester is different. Classes are made up of people, and people are individuals, with snowflake-unique experiences and perspectives. I learn something new that surprises me every time I teach, even when I am teaching a book for the umpteenth time. A vital part of this gift is the trust that students build with one another over time. The interactions in person matter, as we each let down our guard and risk showing confusion, or insight. Body language matters for teaching. If a student crosses his arms and scowls, I know I need to pause the conversation. Has the conversation left him lost? If he is lost, chances are someone else in the room is also lost, but trying to hide it. This is one obvious example. Good teachers learn to pick up subtle cues, to help each person in the class learn. Even if the class is about information – about facts – the classroom matters. A geometry teacher learns how to teach geometry well by answering questions from befuddled students. She may stay up late thinking about how better to explain a difficult concept and, the next year, she has a new pedagogical trick. I may be able to see consternation on a student’s face online, and some confused students will risk typing a question online. But trust is best built minute by minute, session by session, in person.
We may enjoy the polished perfection of a carefully constructed TED talk on screen, but polished perfection is not the same as teaching live people to whom you are accountable and from whom you are learning. Which brings me back to a question I asked last month in my essay against superheroes. How can online learning be the “future” of education in a democracy? A flourishing democracy requires not only a people filled up with facts, but people who have been formed to learn from one another by listening to distinct voices and hearing particular stories. Sharing the task of learning with people who are different than you are is a hedge against tyranny. This is one reason why we finally desegregated public schools across the United States. Placing each student in front of her own little computer, interacting on screen, is a form of re-segregation. The gift of time together is worth public support in a vigorous democracy.
[*] Blog editor’s note for the philosophically curious: Fear and Trembling, Repetition, either Stages on Life’s Way or Philosophical Fragments, and Works of Love, in that order.