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Intellect virtually absent in the online classroom

Usually after asking me for technological aid, my grandfather loves to tell me about the era before computers defined communication—proudly showing me his old but still functional typewriter. Many truly gifted writers, he says, never made the jump from typewriter to computer, preferring the ability to interact with text in ways computer screens don’t allow. 

I never used to empathize with Luddites, but as Georgetown professors have begun asking me to blog about reading assignments and returning essays via e-mail with comments and corrections made using track changes, I’m starting to feel pangs of sympathy for the disgruntled typists, still clattering away at their cherished relics. 

On all other fronts, I’m all for the takeover of technology. I scoff when my mother can’t send a text message, and I know I wouldn’t make it through the day without iCal. But the forced migration of academic endeavors to the Internet leaves me feeling cold and amateurish.

My loudest complaint is the impersonality of the online model. There’s something reassuring and intimate about a hand-corrected paper. To print a paper is to finalize it, making change all but impossible. Printing a paper brings the writer’s ideas and craft into the physical world. In a realm as tenuous and self-conscious as academia, tangibility provides a reassuring degree of legitimacy. A professor’s handwritten corrections are a sign that, even if the grade is poor, the student’s effort received individualized attention. Inserting feedback via track changes, or any online form, is chillingly anonymous and curt. 

“Class Blog” may sound hip and sleek in the mind of a department chair, but any student who has ever spent twenty minutes procrastinating in Lau knows that, while some legitimate online academic endeavors exist, they are vastly outnumbered by sites where amateurs roar their often baseless and ad hominem opinions into the electronic abyss. By name alone, blogs imply a casualness and informality that doesn’t mesh with the serious thought elicited by professors’ prompts. For me, at least, “blog assignment” will always summon up images of Perez Hilton and LiveJournal, not the sober academic forum I’m sure my educators intend.

I am not wholly against the idea of online academic discussion, or generally using technology in the classroom. Videos, PowerPoint presentations, and picture can do a great deal to enrich lessons. MIT’s OpenCourseWare system, which provides academic materials for free online, is another example of a truly ingenious modernization of academia and the sharing potential of the Internet. Georgetown is experimenting with this medium and could see benefits—and possibly an increase in institutional cachet—if it expanded its own online course offerings beyond the current eight.

And while online discussion of course material could be beneficial, the ideal is currently far beyond reach. As the matter stands now, replacing short essays turned in for feedback with essays copied-and-pasted into a three-inch Blackboard window actually weakens students’ grip on the fundamentals of structured writing. And if I wanted significant portions of my interaction with professors and classmates to take place online, I could have pursued admittance to the University of Phoenix. 

To best use the web’s collaborative technology, the school must concentrate on devising new ways to propose and discuss ideas, rather than new ways to submit them. Especially when teachers are slow in responding to online assignments, the enterprise becomes not just alienating but also futile. The University’s blogs should instead become arenas for instant, collaborative feedback on students’ original work, not informal substitutes for short essays. 

I’ve heard that this sort of collaboration is what the University is striving for, but at present the system is still too blocky and hard to navigate in most cases. And I can’t shake the feeling that the driving reason behind the integration of technology into the classroom is that administrators enjoy the hip feeling that accompanies name-dropping new-fangled terms like “tweet” and “thread.”

Then again, it may just be that this is the logical progression of things, and I am merely a myopic stick in the mud. If so, I will continue to mutter my discontent as the world rushes past me, toward an enlightened state I see as artificial and impersonal. I will humbly ask for a place beside the typewriter enthusiasts, perhaps one day showing my grandchildren the simple but beloved machines I call “printers” and “staplers.”



2 comments on “Intellect virtually absent in the online classroom
  1. Pingback: e-Learning Pundit | Friday News Roundup – 02/26/10

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