By Gabriel Martinez, January 13, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, What is Education?
Suppose the financial department of the college comes to the conclusion that “distance-learning is the way to go.” Can we design a long-distance education program that will actually educate, not just instruct? Can we find any good in internet teaching?
I have two ideas, but I would be very curious to know if any of you has others. One avenue would be to make the connection over the internet very intense: lots of chat-room time, with the instructor and with other students. One important characteristic of such “intensity” is an explicit and commonly-held ethos: “We have moral purpose in studying this material, we are building something exciting: let’s spend a lot of time chatting about it.”
Another idea is to require that the students be physically present in the same place at the same time, but only at intervals. One could require, say, that students attend 10-day seminars once or twice a year; or 3–4 day workshops every few months. The idea would be to create a retreat-like experience that engenders solidarity and unity among the (otherwise widely-dispersed) student body. They might foster the genius loci that John Henry Newman thought the hallmark of a genuine liberal education. Through the dialectic of conversation, students might develop a common identity, a sense of comradeship, and coherent set of principles of thought and action. (I’m obviously reflecting on the experience of the Lehrman Summer Institutes as I write these words.)
Students who come for an intense time together might teach each other, as much as they will be taught by their professors, in proportion to the seriousness of mind that will result from their unity of purpose—perhaps more so than if they showed up at the same place for a longer time. Guided by the lectures, cultivated in the reflection sessions, and vivified in the atmosphere, students might gain more in ten intense days than in a year of dissolute partying.