In a recent issue, the Chronicle of Higher Education noted that students thought that in class education is better than online education.  While students believe that online education is cheaper and more convenient, they believed traditional education was superior in four ways:

  • in delivering “instruction tailored to each individual”
  • in providing “high-quality instruction from well-qualified instructors”
  • in offering “rigorous testing and grading that can be trusted”
  • in dispensing “a degree that will be viewed positively by employers.”

In “A Catholic Case Against MOOCs”, John Malesic argues that the way MOOCs favor the rich, undermine salaries, and centralize education violate principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. Malesic concludes by indicating that, if Catholic institutions do resist MOOCs, they must offer the personal education they promise.

Once Catholic colleges distinguish themselves from the MOOC-addled crowd by making this appeal to their tradition’s moral principles . . . . they need to put those principles into action. They need to make sure that they really do educate the whole person.

Both articles point to a question that has been nagging me for some time: What do I do in the classroom that technology cannot do?  How do “instruction tailored to each individual” and educating “the whole person” actually work?  Why can’t they be done online?

To be sure, technology has greatly helped my teaching. I am better informed about my field because I have access to so many more resources, am aware of the writings of so many more thinkers, and get to read more diverse sources (in more diverse ways) than I would have otherwise. I moved quizzes out of the classroom and online so that, when students arrive in class, they have already wrestled with the text and are ready to analyze it.  I can easily supplement course readings with current events just by emailing students a link to an article.  Students can access their grades for my classes at any point in the semester, providing a transparency to the grading process and making me more accountable for my evaluations.  I even have some sympathy for Bill Gates’ comment that technology could help classroom become places of “interactive activities” instead of primarily lectures.

What then do I do that technology cannot?  So often in the discussions of technology and education, the assumption is that knowledge is some “thing” that is given to student by a lecture but could more efficiently be downloaded or streamed.  This “product” model of education is not really what happens in learning though.

Teaching is more like coaching (and no one is clamoring for online coaches).  Coaches help you learn a sport in four ways.  First, they enable you to learn the basic skills of a game efficiently.  Left on your own, you would spend your time discovering basic fundamentals that you could have learned in moments from a coach.  Learning the most effective way to kick a soccer ball would take countless hours of trial and error but can be taught in about five minutes to a five year old.  Second, good coaches also introduce you to the best approaches to the game, approaches that you may or may not have been able to discover on your own.  It is like crowd sourcing, except for a coach compiles all of this information for you and delivers it in a way that players can intellectually and physically learn.  Third, coaches provide individual feedback–where one is doing well and, perhaps more importantly, where one is doing poorly–required for any improvement.  It is essential in every sport, even in ones like chess (as Paul Tough notes in How Children Succeed).  Finally and perhaps most importantly, coaches are driven by love of the game and the players.  They are motivated and spend effort to do the tasks above only because it matters to them.

This is much more like teaching.  Teachers not only must know material but also how to adapt it to the particular students in their classrooms.  This requires not only intellectual acumen but also social intelligence.  Technology seems woefully inadequate for this.  Part of the reason is that it does not have the power to do it.  While Amazon or Twitter might be able to predict a preference, their algorithms are crude compared to human thinking.  Right now it takes “82,944 processors about 40 minutes to simulate one second of neuronal network activity in real, biological time”.  Moreover, the best AI that has been created is not quite as smart as a four year old.  Think of how difficult it is to suggest a book that your friend might like.  Not very.  Now think of how hard it is to even partially understand twenty-five plus students in a classroom.  And this is only a portion of what is necessary for effective teaching.

The deeper reason though is that technology doesn’t care.  What not only motivates but actually enables professors to effectively organize and communicate what they know is the fact that they care, care about the material, care about  students learning the material.  (If they don’t care, they will not be good teachers, no matter how smart they might be.)  This indispensable role of feelings is central to Daniel Goleman’s argument in Emotional Intelligence, a widely accepted conclusion built upon by such works as Brain Rules, Blink, and Thinking Fast and Slow.  Without feelings, humans have no ability to organize data, read social situations, and experience empathy.  They become apathetic or psychopathic, and technology will function similarly without something like care.

Technology has neither the power nor the care to be able to teach students.  It can undoubtedly help and has the potential to greatly aid teaching, but it cannot replicate what people do in the classroom.  While I realize that this is not an explicit theological claim, it is one that should make sense to those professing belief in a god whose most definitive way of teaching was to become one of us and dwell among us because of a great love for us.