Pitfalls of Online Education

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Excerpted from a longer critical essay by C. A. Bowers:

"What the computer scientists and technologists who write the computer programs are not likely to have encountered in their own education is that words are metaphors, and that the printed word gives few clues to how it’s supposed current meanings were framed in the past by people who settled on analogs that are still carried forward and have become part of the computer scientists’ taken-for-granted interpretative frameworks. This process of socialization should be understood as the linguistic colonization of the present by the past, which is largely ignored because of the many ways people have been indoctrinated with the belief that they are autonomous thinkers. These misconceptions are further reinforced when what is learned in an online course is encoded in print, in videos that are also abstractions from the world of living cultural and natural ecologies, and by the cultural amplifications and reductions that are inherent characteristics of computers. And when the mode of abstract representation (i.e., print, visual, auditory) becomes the basis of thinking for students from non-Western cultures, the online course, taught in whichever Western language, becomes a form of cultural colonization. As most computer programmers ignore this characteristic of the printed word, there are few instances in which the content of the online course challenges students to consider the cultural differences in the meaning of words. Instead of reflecting on the cultural ecology of the vocabulary and other abstract visual images appearing on the screen, the student is more likely to consider them as factual and objective representations of how to think about reality––especially when the online course is part of a degree program offered by universities such as Stanford, MIT, and other elite institutions.

How Abstract Systems of Representation Undermine Our Ecological Intelligence

A student participates in an online mentorship program. Credit: Creative Commons/Alec Couros. As Ong and other linguists focusing on the differences between orality and literacy have pointed out, the idea that print-based knowledge and communication are more accurate and objective also reinforces the privileging of sight over the other senses––which in turn strengthens the idea of being an autonomous individual who sees, thinks, and acts. Indeed, one of the arguments used to promote the wider use of computers in education is that they provide access to data, information, and accounts that far exceeds what the classroom teacher or professor can bring to the student’s learning experience. The further claim for computer-mediated learning is that it adds to the ability of students to construct their own knowledge––which is an argument that fails to consider that students’ thought processes are largely dependent on the metaphorical vocabulary they acquire when becoming a member of a language community. During the early stages of language acquisition, the child is vulnerable to accepting word meanings (metaphors) that carry forward the misconceptions, insights, and silences of the people whose analogs continue to frame those meanings. As this process of learning is largely taken for granted, few attend to the way that the history of words reproduces earlier ways of thinking that do not take into account the current cultural and natural ecologies that vary in terms of ethnic groups, bioregions, and metanarratives. To summarize the key misconception reinforced by the privileging of the abstract knowledge encoded in print, it is that there is such an entity as an autonomous thinker and actor. This culturally specific assumption and the assumption about the objective nature of knowledge communicated through print are likely to be reinforced across the courses made available as part of an online degree.

The reality, as Gregory Bateson points out, is that everything exists in relationships with other participants in cultural and natural ecologies. That is, individuals, plants, animals, genes, macroclimate systems, and so forth always exist in complex and interdependent communications systems we call ecologies. The printed word is unable to represent the dynamic, interactive, and ongoing communication of information that Bateson suggests can be understood as the “difference which makes a difference” circulating through all ecologies. What Bateson is arguing is that “differences,” especially when we are aware of them, lead to differences in our response, which in turn lead to differences to which other participants, ranging from genes to macroecosystems, in the cultural and natural ecology respond to––in an ongoing process. The assumption that things exist in some kind of an autonomous status or as fixed entities—represented in the assumption that there are independent facts, objective data, and events that can be understood as separate from the differences which make a difference circulating through interactive ecologies—is also reinforced through print-encoded knowledge. What students are not likely to learn in these online courses is how to recognize how the language that is the basis of their taken-for-granted patterns of thinking fails to accurately represent the cultural and natural ecological systems in which they are embedded. And it is unlikely that any of the online courses, even those created by scholars with international reputations, will challenge students to identify new culturally and ecologically informed analogs that will overcome the problem of how words (metaphors) continue to reproduce earlier culturally specific misconceptions and silences. For example, how many students from other cultures who are in the early stages of learning English are going to be aware that the current meanings of such pervasively used metaphors as “freedom,” “individualism,” “progress,” “data,” “technology,” “development,” were framed in earlier eras when there was no awareness of environmental limits? The ethnocentrism of these earlier eras is also reproduced in the current use of these metaphors.

Playing tennis, preparing a soufflé, writing a paragraph, talking with a stranger or friend, planting a garden, deciding how to dress given a change in the weather, going to war, performing in an orchestra, promoting social reforms, and introducing a new technology such as literacy or computers all involve varying degrees of awareness of differences––that is, the information already being exchanged within the local and macronatural and cultural ecologies. The conceptual maps acquired from print-based learning, that is, abstract learning reinforced in these online courses, undermine the ability to give full attention to the differences (information circulating, as Foucault would put it, as an “action upon an action” of the Other)––which in turn introduces differences that make a difference within the interactive fields of relationships. This results in the introduction of policies, procedures, and technologies that are often poorly suited to the local characteristics of different natural and cultural ecologies. A good example of the failure of abstract thinking on the part of highly literate and thus abstract-thinking politicians is the way the borders of countries were established during the colonial era. Their decisions failed to take into account local contexts (cultural and natural ecologies)––that is, the tribal and religious groups holding opposing ideas that have now become the basis of today’s political conflicts. This can also be seen in the development of infrastructure systems that have failed to take into account the cultural practices of local communities––freeways and the location of centers of political power would be prime examples.

Computer-driven technologies that displace the need for workers, who are needed by the economic system to consume what can now be more efficiently produced, provide yet another example of how abstract thinking, rather than ecological thinking, leads to double binds that have dire social consequences.

What is not likely to be understood by the people who turn the knowledge of various disciplines into online courses is that the vocabulary (again, context-free printed words) used in a course influences which differences that make a difference will become the focus of the student’s attention and will thus be taken into account in the student’s response. To make this point more directly, a vocabulary that reinforces the misconception of being an autonomous, rationally directed individual will lead to a person-centered form of ecological intelligence in which the only differences that make a difference to be taken into account will be those related to the individual’s personal agenda.

For example, the person trying to find the opening on the flow of traffic that will allow getting ahead of other drivers gives attention and responds to a limited set of differences: the space between the cars in the lane the person wants to move into, the speed of the slower vehicle just ahead, the weather conditions, and so forth. This person-centered exercise of ecological intelligence does not take account of potential destructive impact on others or on the natural systems that result from driving a car with a high carbon footprint. An online course, in reinforcing the Western assumption that what is learned adds to the individual’s capacity to be an autonomous rational thinker, further contributes to a society that is unable to recognize that the Western view of the autonomous individual is partly at the root of the ecological crisis. When few professors outside the sciences take the ecological crisis seriously enough to examine how their own courses reinforce the same deep cultural assumptions that contribute to overshooting the sustaining capacity of natural systems, their behavior further ensures that online courses will be able to address only technological solutions caused by cultural assumptions that are little understood. Unfortunately, the education of most scientists is also limiting in that it failed to address how print reinforces abstract thinking and thus limits the exercise of ecological intelligence. Perhaps more important, the education of most scientists failed to introduce them to the understanding that metaphorical language reproduces the misconceptions of earlier eras, which can be seen in how their culturally dictated understanding of progress has precluded them from considering the importance of what their new technologies are displacing.

What Is Lost Through Computer-Mediated Learning

Friedman refers to the dawning of the era of Internet university degrees in metaphors that make questioning the “revolutionary” developments of Professor Ng and other proponents of online degrees appear reactionary. Isn’t it sheer ignorance to question what Friedman refers to as the “top quality” and “world class” learning that will be made available by the professors from Stanford, Michigan, Princeton, and other elite universities?

What is too often overlooked because of the late twentieth-century education of most professors who will write these supposedly world-class online courses is the simple insight of the late Theodore Roszak, who noted that the basic relationship in computer-mediated learning is the mind of the student meeting the minds of the people who write the software. While the professor writing the online course may have an outstanding scholarly record, that professor will too often reproduce the silences and misconceptions shared within the discipline, as well as the taken-for-granted language and thus the culturally specific root metaphors that have guided the process of modernization and now globalization.

What continues to be overlooked is that the graduates of these elite universities have become the power brokers on Wall Street and the foreign policy experts who have sent the youth of the middle and poorer classes into one war after another. To date, the graduates of these elite universities continue to promote economic globalization and the further development of technologies that reduce the need for workers. Their understanding of what constitutes progress and wealth, which is driven largely by abstract ideologies inherited from the print-based thinking of earlier Western thinkers, is in many instances the basis of social policies that are contributing to the spread of poverty and the further degradation of natural systems.

While Friedman celebrates the way that the elite universities will package and make available their high-status knowledge, the real problems that will dominate the lives of students from all regions of the world will be the deepening ecological crisis that is already threatening sources of protein and potable water, causing changes in habitats, and increasing disruptions in civil society as the forces of economic globalization further undermine the life-sustaining ability of natural systems. How many computer scientists such as Professor Ng, and how many of the social science and humanities faculty at these elite universities, are aware of how their thinking is based on many of the same deep, taken-for-granted cultural assumptions that provided conceptual and moral legitimacy for the industrial culture that is still being promoted as the engine of progress? Asking the same questions about the misconceptions, silences, and cultural colonization that are part of any regular face-to-face class that also involves textbooks, which will be magnified by a largely print-based online course of study, brings into focus the highly problematic nature of Friedman’s claim of a world-class education, as well as that of his claim that the online revolution in higher education represents the best that the elite universities have to offer.

Who Will Receive the Monetary Benefits from Online Courses?

The economy of scale appears to benefit the students (who obtain credit for completing a low-cost online course), the universities that own the copyright, as well as the corporations that maintain the online delivery. In other words, huge profits are to be made. Given Professor Ng’s example of offering a course taken by 100,000 students, and the claim that already over a million students have taken other online courses, it’s clear that economic forces will soon lead university administrators to terminate unpopular programs and to reduce the number of campus-based faculty.

Will the profits from the new system be made available in the form of a safety net for those faculty who have been dismissed as redundant? Will the faculty member who creates the online course receive fair compensation, or will the salary paid during the time it took to create the online course be considered adequate? And what should be the response of faculty unions to the challenges posed by turning online university degrees into a new large and highly profitable industry? Their response will likely focus on economic issues, as few faculty possess the conceptual background necessary for challenging the threat posed by the inherent culturally mediating characteristics of computers to further undermine the development of ecological intelligence needed in the years ahead.

Another question that has yet to be answered is how many faculty members will be able to raise equally critical questions about the ways that online courses, especially those taught in English, undermine cultures that have survived in harsh environments by developing ecological intelligence and encoding it in their languages. Instead of engaging faculty in the computer sciences about the forms of knowledge and skill development that cannot be acquired from an online course, the dominant mood among faculty is more like the frog that fails to recognize the dangers of sitting in a pot that is heating up. When university administrators decide that online courses create more revenue than departments with declining enrollments and tenure can no longer protect the faculty from being laid off, it will be (as with the frog in the boiling water) too late.

Friedman holds out the promise that the delivery systems in this emerging era of online degrees will enable students in different regions of the world to encounter the best minds that the elite universities have to offer. But there is little evidence that these world-class faculty members understand the nature and ecological importance of the world’s diversity of cultural commons and how they are being undermined by computer-mediated learning. Would they be able to engage computer science faculty in an extended discussion of the printed word’s inherent ethnocentricity and its reproduction of the deep cultural assumptions that are partly at the root of the ecological crisis? Would they be able to clarify why the spoken word, communal memory, and reliance on all the senses as sources of information have enabled some cultures to develop ecologically sustainable daily practices? The even more difficult challenge would be to engage computer science faculty in a way that would facilitate their openness to learning what they do not know. The combination of specialized languages and the hubris that comes with promoting cutting-edge technologies makes interdisciplinary exchanges exceedingly difficult.

The one point that faculty in the social sciences and humanities would be able to make is that online courses, unlike courses with similar course titles that provide students with a wide range of interpretations, would promote the interpretation of the professor or expert who prescribes what the course content should be. Economic and technological factors will dictate that the course content be free of ambiguities and alternative interpretations that would limit the ability to machine-score the students’ performance. This, in turn, raises the question of whether computer science faculty understand the dangers of courses that promote a monocultural mentality, and whether university administrators will be able to resist the economic benefits of offering the same online course over and over again."