One of the central dynamics of our times is the tug of war between the virtual and the tangible, between the technological and the human. This tension recently came at me from an unexpected direction.
When a Buddhist monk tells me that online learning can be better than a real classroom, I have to take it seriously, if for no other reason than it challenges my stereotypes of Buddhist monks.
The monk in question is David Caruso, the president of Antioch University New England, where I happen to sit on the board. I confess that I am a traditionalist when it comes to education. I believe that a good teacher is a stage performer who plays off the reaction of her audience. I believe that when we share an idea, the way we speak carries as much information as the meaning of our words. I still think I’m right on those points but I am reassessing whether those aspects trump everything that takes place in learning.
Over dinner, David, rumpled my easy assumption that Buddhism equals technological simplicity. Now, it’s possible that David is not a very observant Buddhist but setting purity of practice aside, he did make a persuasive case for the virtual classroom.
“We romanticize our own educations,” he said. “In most classes, maybe one third of the people speak up. One third never do and one third tune out. Online, you can require that everybody chimes in.”
As David sees it, participation is key to learning and being in the same room with a bunch of people isn’t the best setting for most people. The very same social cues and social communication that come with a live classroom could in fact undermine more people than are helped. When we speak in a group, we know we might be judged; about what, we might not be sure but if everything in a class has an element of performance, then stage fright will be part of the mix.
The virtual classroom puts a big cushion between each person; it’s like hiding behind a two-way mirror until you are fully ready to speak and even then, your voice is masked. No one can tell if you are dressed well, have a confident tone, or forgot to brush your hair. Your opportunity to choose the right words is much greater when you can type something, swap out a word or two and polish it before you hit Enter. In many ways, your ideas speak for themselves and take precedence over everything else. If we trust the world of ideas, shouldn’t we prefer this approach?
David offered other benefits. Conversations aren’t lost and you can always go back and see the flow of ideas. If you hit the web to look up some factoid while class is in session, you are more likely to hold on to that information because it came to you with some context rather than as a free floating bit of trivia.
I can see the advantages in all this. I wouldn’t carry this benefit to the extreme and say we should eliminate face-to-face classroom time. Speaking in public, or at least in a group, by itself is a critical skill and we should develop it. But I am also ready to accept that learning in a social setting has drawbacks that the online classroom can fix.
The irony of this discussion is that I doubt I would have taken David’s words so to heart if we hadn’t been speaking in person. His eyes twinkle with good humor as he launches into a full bore disagreement with you which makes it hard to get your hackles up. He knows how to be emphatic without being strident. Also, when you are talking over dinner it’s essentially impossible to walk away.
The personal and direct relationship matters a great deal, apparently, even when making the case for virtual interactions. The untidyness of life merits a hearty round of applause — but please, use one hand.