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There’s no online substitute for a real university classroom (Comstock/Getty Images/Comstock Images)
There’s no online substitute for a real university classroom (Comstock/Getty Images/Comstock Images)

Clifford Orwin

There’s no online substitute for a real university classroom Add to ...

You hear a lot of talk about how universities and teachers are expensive dinosaurs and how the future of teaching lies online. Don’t believe a word of it. The classroom experience – live – remains the heart of real education.

One necessary word of distinction: By “education” I don’t mean training or even mere instruction. Widget-making (however complex the widget) may well be teachable online. By education I mean formation of the whole person, to which the humanities have traditionally aspired – as have the natural and social sciences in their noblest conceptions of themselves.

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Online education of this sort may sound good – false economies often do. One professor and a zillion students – there’s a ratio to cheer the heart of a university administrator. And that all those students can remain isolated in their cubicles, from Saskatoon to Shanghai, not even having to spring for bus fare to get to the campus? And can tell everyone they got to study with a famous professor (as the headliners of such courses often are)? How awesome is that?

No doubt such courses are a boon to many: shut-ins, desperate housewives, the fully employed and overemployed, deployed soldiers, the incarcerated, technicians at the South Pole – in short, all who lack access to a real education. Something is always better than nothing, and I applaud colleagues who undertake such outreach.

Still, don’t mistake what’s better than nothing for what’s best. Real education requires real teachers and students, not disembodied electronic wraiths. Once that condition has been met, by all means bring in the Web, too. Especially where courses are too large (as is common in our universities), an electronic component can be very useful. But so-called education without live dialogue between teacher and student should excite no one.

My theory of education is simple: You have to be there. I’ve been privileged to know both great teachers and outstanding students. Neither could have revealed themselves as such except in person, nor could they have partaken fully of what the other had to offer. The electricity that crackles through a successful classroom can’t be transmitted electronically.

Recently, someone offered me an online platform for my teaching. He was in a position to promise that under his electronic patronage my lectures would reach legions. I declined. I’m particular about my students. If they want to study with me, they will have to find their way to my classroom. I also know that I’m only at my best with flesh-and-blood students to animate me. Inspired by that command made famous at the Battle of Bunker Hill, my motto is this: Don’t teach until you see the whites of their eyes.

The New York Times of July 19 contained an excellent column by the University of Virginia’s Mark Edmundson. He explained why teaching requires the physical presence of the students. Prof. Edmundson likens good teaching to jazz. It is inherently responsive and improvisational. You revise your presentation as it goes, incorporating the students’ evolving reception of it. In response to their response, as individuals and as a group, you devise new variations on your theme. You don’t address students in the abstract or as some anonymous throng scattered throughout cyberspace. You always teach these students, in this room, at this time.

So it matters to me to know who my students are, to know their faces and names, to see how they dress and what they’re reading. I need to talk to them before and after class and listen to what they’re saying among themselves. Above all, it’s crucial for me to hear their voices as they answer my questions and ask their own, to heed their inflections and mark the expressions on their faces. In my large introductory course, I devote a third of the time to discussion. That’s not just so the students can probe me, but so I can probe them.

It’s equally important to the students that I’m there. They need a real person with whom to engage. Someone to interrogate. Someone to persuade them. Someone to resist. Someone with whom they can identify or refuse to identify. Because education addresses the whole person, it requires a real person to model it. It matters to the students not just to hear what I say but to hear the voice in which I say it – the hesitations as well as the certainties. They need an example of someone who, like them, is learning as he goes along – but just happens to be further along than they are.

Live education is expensive, you say? The best things in life tend to be.

Clifford Orwin is professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a distinguished fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute.

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