Cura Technologis: Online classes abandon the ‘whole person’

April 2, 2014

“Go to class at the beach. Go to class on top of the Eiffel Tower. Go to class during your lunch break,” a March 18 email from Georgetown promised. According to the website description, Georgetown Summer School online “feature[s] the same content and objectives as on-campus courses offered in the fall, spring, and summer.” Somehow, we have found a way to translate the entire classroom experience into HTML and plan to make it available starting summer 2014. To be specific, Georgetown plans on offering courses in Government, History, Human Science, Philosophy, and Writing. Not Computer Science or Intro to Statistics—the kinds of courses that students often find doable without lectures or even a small discussion section. Online summer classes will be the very courses that require engagement, face-to-face dialogue, and are the courses that I would argue stand at the core of Georgetown’s values. If Georgetown wishes to claim that it is unique because of its Jesuit values and Jesuit education model, it probably should not dilute the liberal arts core that makes it what it is. “Writing represents a rhetorical act. In other words, it depends on one’s sense of others,” the syllabus for the online writing class states. In the Philosophy class, “you will learn how to engage in a reasoned debate about these questions.” Because, after all, “this knowledge is essential for effective citizenship and activism.” The descriptions for these classes sound similar, if not identical, to those we might receive in the classroom. However, the means by which many of these objectives are met in the classroom are stripped away. How are we to get a “sense of others” if the class is designed to avoid sitting in a classroom with others? Though online forums and discussion boards provide meaningful dialogue and a space to pose thoughtful questions, they cannot replace the experience of looking someone who disagrees with you in the eye and debating them. Rhetoric is much more than acquiring content. The skills required for communication and persuasion are not transferrable via a Google hangout. In fact, the idea that the knowledge needed for “effective citizenship and activism” could be found in a textbook—or a PDF for that matter—displays a sorely misguided understanding of citizenship. Confronting difference, recognizing pluralism, and respecting others’ opinions—these are the experiences that we gain in the liberal arts and the skills that we use as citizens in the public sphere. Even as a student with abnormal reverence for old texts and the old men who wrote them, I know that my education really happens in practice, rather than by memorization and recollection of facts and theories. With the lack of information provided regarding the format of these courses, we are left to speculate. So, these online courses will assign readings, possibly weekly blog posts, perhaps a recorded lecture, and maybe even a coordinated videoconference. Don’t get me wrong—these tools are not inherently bad. Indeed, they aid classroom participation and round out our experience. They cannot, however, replicate the experience. Humanities courses are important for the real and uncomfortable situations that arise when students disagree, or are forced to confront one another. We bypass those situations by cutting out the classroom, ultimately a decision that may prove problematic for graduates in the workforce—many employers cite “team work,” “effective communication,” and “ability to engage with others who are different from yourself” as the most important skills with which graduates can enter the workforce.  If Georgetown slowly chips away at the courses that form the foundation of these experiences, it can forget about preparing its students for the global economy and living for others. Cura Personalis calls for care of the whole person—care for each aspect of the individual. I wonder, though, what happens when that person is not capable of communicating ideas to others offline because the social, dare I say human, parts of their existence were left alone to degenerate. This idea may sound a bit extreme now. After all, they are just a few courses. Large and most likely uneventful, these intro courses may be more beneficial if we could just take them without fear of landing a bad TA or sleeping through class. I imagine that Georgetown believes that it is doing students a favor, that “these are just intro classes, upper-levels will surely do the trick!” But, while I know that intro courses are not the most important, I fear that the habit of sidestepping the classroom will only become more prevalent. With the movement towards Massive Open Online Courses, “skills-based learning” and more technology than we know what to do with, we may be looking at the decline of personal student engagement and the birth of Cura Technologis.

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