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Sky Gilbert, Toronto author (handout)
Sky Gilbert, Toronto author (handout)

Sky Gilbert

University education, like love, cannot simply be moved online Add to ...

Recently, a former president of the University of Guelph, Alastair Summerlee, delivered a speech in which he urged students and faculty alike to embrace the future: “We’re part of a legacy system that goes back to the days of monks. In the days since books were written one at a time, society embraced the printing press and now the internet. And yet we still teach by standing up and talking to people” The answer, Mr. Summerlee said, is to “create more online courses.”

I disagree.

It’s important to note that Alastair Summerlee is not alone in this view. George Mehaffy, Vice President of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, shares Mr. Summerlee’s ideas, stating that “technology can reduce the costs of post-secondary education by reducing reliance on faculty members.” It seems that, increasingly, Canadian universities are looking to Americans like Mr. Mehaffy who offer a business/corporate approach to learning, one that is focused on getting more of a bang for the student buck by jettisoning teachers and increasing our reliance on technology.

Let me state two things right away.

First, I am not worried about losing my teaching job. I’m terribly old and will retire soon, and after all I’ve spent most of my life in the theatre world, not the academic world. This essay is not a desperate attempt to save my living. What I am trying to do is save education.

And yes, save the children.

I don’t hate technology. I think, however, that it’s foolish and shortsighted to imagine that technology is the answer to every problem. Technology makes our lives easier – sometimes, but not all the time. And it’s important to remember that the Internet is no longer a disinterested source of information. As Google begins to collect data for its massive world library it becomes more and more evident that various profit-making search engines and operating systems are competing for control of the lucrative digital world and the less-than-disinterested ‘information’ it supplies.

To suggest that a professor standing in front of a room full of students is a medieval concept makes as much sense as to suggest that love and sex will someday have nothing to do with producing babies. Certainly we have technology to replace both traditional procreation and traditional teaching methods – but is a world without love and a world without interactive pedagogy one in which you wish to live?

Not me.

I will go as far as to say that a world without university professors is in some ways equivalent to a world without love. Teaching and learning involves human beings, interaction, opinions, facial expressions, emotion, and yes even a touch of the hand or a warm, sweaty handshake. The dialectal method involves asking questions and getting answers, and this means living people sitting in a room together and spontaneously interacting (remember that?), experiencing all the excitement and disappointment, the frustration and fury, of involved discussion.

This idea is neither antiquated nor old-fashioned; it is simply true. We don’t learn unless we can interact with others, unless we have real conversations and real experiences.

Online education is valuable for many reasons – for those who are disabled or who live far from a university, for instance. But should technological pedagogy be universally and unequivocally embraced? Universities should be places where the effects of technology on human beings and human interaction are studied. They should not be simply places where the social, political and economic ramifications of technology are accepted without critical thought.

There must be some better way to cut costs than to destroy the very essence of analytical understanding – the machine of our learning. Because when it comes to musing and thinking, creating and debating, the teacher-student dialectic is the virtual machine of our intellectual love.

Sky Gilbert is University Research Chair in Creative Writing and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph.

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