A Mess of Pixels

Now that Harvard, MIT, and Stanford are offering courses online we can expect, indeed we are already seeing, the drill teams and pompom persons coming out to shake ‘em for the nascent advertising campaign in favor of “delivering” “instruction” online. Readers of these postings will know my own deep reservations about this move, but Harvard, MIT, and Stanford themselves are being rather cautious about their online offerings.

They are not fully integrated with any college of those institutions. They do not accrue credit. They do not count towards degrees. That caution only reflects the reality that online “instruction” does not take advantage of the richness of real academic residence; the benefit of meeting with colleagues, classmates, and teachers; the aid to education afforded by institutional and formal ties; and the human connections formed in real life.

I have been paying the university fees of a South African man who has been working towards his degree at a university known within South Africa for its programs in “distance learning.” During the first years of his undergraduate program he was distanced, as it were, and not a little alienated from his studies. This year, his final year, is one of live workshops, seminars, and courses. The difference to him—and in him—has been remarkable to see and hear as his emails and Skype conversations fill me in on activity, alertness, give-and-take, fascination, interest, learning, and just plain real life that he has been missing. What I see happening in the movement to turn schools into screens and clicks is a movement in the opposite direction, and, though not without possible benefits, in general a bad direction.

This is a short posting because I am doing my end-of-year marking, grading, and conferring. I’m handing back papers. I’m giving and reporting on oral and written examinations. My students are knocking at the door asking for meetings and explanations. Parents are writing. Teachers are conferring in order to work up and issue “advisor reports” on each student by an advisor-teacher. We are producing the three-page year-end reports that each student and his parents get. Summer reading assignments are being made, as well as plans for summertime remediation in writing. Would we want to give that up for a mess of pixels, never mind that it is just a click away?


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