Through the looking glass

Source: FutureLearn website

We’ve all heard about it, seen it in movies, read about it in book: the world where the “parlor families” of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 meet and laugh and eat together via the power of wall-sized screens; the world of Pixar’s WALL-E, where human beings play virtual golf and wear virtual clothes; the world of Ender’s Game, where entire wars are fought in simulated space. If you’re looking for an even more outlandish concept of virtual reality, check out that film, The Social Network, where this guy named Zuckerberg practically establishes an online universe, a place where human beings supposedly can become actual friends with other human beings without actually meeting each other! I mean, if that’s not the stuff of sci-fi, I don’t know what is… oh, wait. That’s a true story.

The idea of a life totally fused with technology is nothing new. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re reading it through the glowing lattice of screen, courtesy of that little upside-down-pyramid-of-black-lines otherwise known as Wi-Fi internet. Since the time of its conception, most people seem to agree that the Internet has helped in more ways than it has harmed. It has brought us connectivity, entertainment, information – entire new worlds and even new personas for us to explore and create. Internet is also increasingly utilized as a medium for education. Online classes seem are springing up everywhere, and now they’re taking root in the Bubble.

St Andrews University is now offering e-learning courses as a result of a partnership with FutureLearn, an Open University company. FutureLearn’s mission statement is that it is a program dedicated to the provision of “supported distance learning.”

For all apparent reasons, there is nothing wrong with this new deal. However, as my introduction suggests, there is another, less attractive facet to the developed world’s e-obsession.

I was first introduced to online education during my 9-month stay in Beijing, China. In order to keep up with academics, I took 3 classes via various online schools, and ultimately, those classes consumed my life. I found myself unable to devote myself to my Chinese host family and their country because I was constantly drawn back to the world inside my screen. There I was, living in a country full of adventure and enlightenment, and a good third of my day was spent staring at an 8-by-11 inch square of pixelated unreality, trying to engage in an education that, frankly, was just that – unreal.

As a student, the classes I perform best in are those with which I connect with on a personal, relational level. “Face-to-face conversation,” as Master of the New College of the Humanities, AC Grayling, asserts, is necessary for true learning to take place.

My point? E-learning can pull you away from the real world and into a virtual one, and, void of substantial interaction, the latter provides an education than that given through traditional face-to-face, voice-to-voice learning forums.

Online schools often tout their ability to “connect” people. They try to engage learners in a dynamic educational space by way of plugging students into myriad various networks – blogs, Twitter-feeds, Voicethreads, etc. – in order to encourage student “interaction.” But, as any Facebook-addict knows, real-time interaction with another human being feels and sits in the memory in very different ways than the occasional poke, message, or wall-post – often with far more depth and more relational power.

Can an e-learning system honestly say that it offers an impactful, interactive education? Maybe. I, personally, haven’t found that to be the case. St Andrews e-learners may think differently.

To sum up – yes, an online education is convenient. It’s fast. It’s progressive. It’s making the world smaller and education more accessible. But when all is said and done, what do we want education to be about? The speed and ease with which we can digest and regurgitate thoughts and ideas? Or  a lasting pursuit of knowledge that can be applied and acted upon in the real world, with the real people in our lives?



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