A Necessary But Unwelcome Situation – Why Online Education Is For Quarantine Only

By Graham Davidson.

The current COVID-19 crisis has already had far reaching, and previously unimaginable consequences. In Italy and Spain, society grinds to a halt, as world-leading healthcare systems are overwhelmed by the virus. In Britain, a Conservative government announces economic measures to the left of anything any Labour government has ever dreamt of. The dramatic events of recent weeks have led many commentators and members of the public to speculate whether lasting societal changes may result. Could some of the current emergency measures and societal changes – for example increased working from home or the new-found respect for low-paid key workers – become more permanent? One such possible change which concerns us as students may be that the current enforced switch from face-to-face teaching and tutorials to online classes potentially heralds a new dawn for digital, remote tertiary education. However, as I will argue here, while it may well be possible to switch permanently to online teaching, for educational, societal, and mental health-related reasons, online education is a bad idea. Far from pressing on with digital education and remote working, our desire for social contact and nature as highly social beings absolutely mandates face-to-face contact, education and working practices.

Despite my reservations over online learning, it is first necessary to acknowledge that it is both technologically viable and already a far from unpopular strategy. Online learning technologies already exist and are being improved upon all the time, while a quick Google search is all that is needed to find several cheerleaders for this new form of education. However, to properly assess the future viability of online learning, it is certainly worth investigating that which has already been tried. The evidence is far from promising.

Beginning in 2011, massive open online courses (MOOCs) were heralded as the future of adult learning, and when Udacity rolled out core course from MIT and Stanford two years later, many commentators predicted serious disruption for traditional universities and their in-person way of learning. However, the MOOCs were frankly a disaster. Of the tens of thousands of students who enrolled, a mere 4% continued to graduation. A drop-out rate of 96% does not bode well for online learning being further expanded. A clue as to why this model failed – and would probably continue to fail in the future – comes from Max Ventilla of AltSchool, who states “the worst use of software in {education} is in replacement of humans.” Quite simply, people don’t learn effectively from books and PowerPoint presentations – we learn from (and with) other people. Like many (indeed most) other important human activities, education is a highly social phenomenon.

Moreover, while online learning does undoubtedly have its merits – for example, international students can study from anywhere without worrying about living expenses in western countries – any attempts to further reduce human contact is especially worrying in the light of the ever emerging picture of increased loneliness and poor mental health among young people in the West. While loneliness is a problem more traditionally associated with the elderly, a recent YouGov poll showed harrowing numbers of young people aged 18-24 complaining of a lack of meaningful companionship, while reporting far higher levels of distress over the matter than their older counterparts. Of these, a full 80% complained of shyness, and 32% stated that there were ‘no people I would want to be friends with nearby’. Given the current epidemic of mental ill health among people of this age group, surely attempts to reduce personal and social interaction at university must be discouraged. While lectures can sometimes be boring, and tutorials sometimes daunting, how many of us met the friends – and partners – who are helping us make it through the current lockdown in them? Such vital social capital simply couldn’t be found in online learning.

My final point is a societal one and concerns the need for social contact in breaking down barriers and engaging with people both from different cultures, and (perhaps more importantly) with those from the same culture but with different values and opinions. While the phenomenon of both racial and sexual prejudice being reduced by contact with minority groups is fairly well known and studied , university can also be a place to debate, disagree with and learn from people with radically different opinions on how society should and does work. On a personal note, I’ve certainly met people at university who I vigorously disagree with on almost everything to do with culture and politics, but who I nevertheless hope will remain friends for life. While it’s easy (as any Twitter addict will sadly confirm) to argue with and hurl insults and personal slurs at an avatar online, it’s far harder to hate someone when you’re looking into the whites of their eyes. While university is often blamed for actually exacerbating and accelerating societal conflict, at its best, it can be a key forum for exchanging ideas and breaking down divisions. Online debates and arguments can no doubt sometimes be vigorous and engaging, but we need eye contact and to see and read body language if we’re really to engage with each other properly. That can only ever properly be done when we’re in the same room.

Thus, while the university currently has no choice and is trying to make the best of a bad situation, online education is emphatically not the future. Human beings are highly social animals who need to be together. To retreat further into online worlds from the safety – and isolation – of our own homes is to both deny the reality of our nature and to risk further decline in mental health and social capital. Anyone currently sat at home struggling for essay motivation will surely be glad of the opportunity to get back to lectures and the library when the current crisis is over. While ever-improving technologies make online learning more viable, they do not in any way make it more desirable. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

Photo credit.

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