It's of course possible both to teach and to learn via a video or a book. But there's an implicit vision many of us share about what happens in a college classroom between a professor and students. It involves how a classroom comes together as a shared experience, as the participants develop both a closeness and an openness with each other. There is an underlying belief that the process of learning through an interwoven reaction and counter-reaction, sustained in this shared atmosphere, is part of what matters for an education, not just a a score on a test of pre-specified learning objectives.
There's a strong case to be made for the gains from using various forms of information technology to learn (more on that in a moment). But the tradeoff of IT-enabled learning is that this vision of shared classroom space is changed beyond recognition. Tim Parks offers a personal lamentation for what is lost in "The Dying Art of Instruction in the Digital Classroom," at the New York Review of Books "Daily" website (July 31, 2019). He writes:
The combination of computer use, Internet, and smart phone, I would argue, has changed the cognitive skills required of individuals. Learning is more and more a matter of mastering various arbitrary software procedures that then allow information to be accessed and complex operations to be performed without our needing to understand what is entailed in those operations. This activity is then carried on in an environment where it is quite normal to perform two, three, or even four operations at the same time, with a general and constant confusion of the social, the academic, and the occupational.
The idea of a relationship between teacher and class, professor and students, is consequently eroded. The student can rapidly check on his or her smartphone whether the professor is right, or indeed whether there isn’t some other authority offering an entirely different approach. With the erosion of that relationship goes the environment that nurtured it: the segregated space of the classroom where, for an hour or so, all attention was focused on a single person who brought all of his or her experience to the service of the group.
As Parks acknowledges, a crappy teacher will fail to build such a relationship. He writes: "I can think of no moments of my life more utterly squandered than my last high school year of math lessons with a pleasant enough man whose only aim seemed to be to get out of the classroom unscathed." But his theme is has become harder to build the classic college teaching relationship. He writes:
Last year, the university told me they could no longer give me a traditional classroom for my lesson. So I have thirty students behind computer screens attached to the Internet. If I sit behind my desk at the front of the class, or even stand, I cannot see their faces. In their pockets, in their hands, or simply open in front of them, they have their smartphones, their ongoing conversations with their boyfriends, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, or other friends very likely in other classrooms. There is now a near total interpenetration of every aspect of their lives through the same electronic device.
To keep some kind of purpose and momentum, I walked back and forth here and there, constantly seeking to remind them of my physical presence. But all the time the students have their instruments in front of them that compel their attention. While in the past they would frequently ask questions when there was something they didn’t understand—real interactivity, in fact—now they are mostly silent, or they ask their computers. Any chance of entering into that “passion of instruction” is gone. I decided it was time for me to go with it.
Parks notes that IT-enabled learning has definite and real advantages.
My youngest daughter recently signed on for a higher-level degree in which all the teaching is accessed through the Internet. Lectures are prepared and recorded once and for all as videos that can be accessed by class after class of students any number of times. You have far more control, my daughter observes: if there’s something that’s hard to understand, you can simply go back to it. You don’t have to hear your friends chattering. You don’t have to worry about what to wear for lessons. You don’t miss a day through illness. And the teachers, she thinks, make more of an effort to perfect the lesson, since they only have to do it once.
But many colleges and universities are moving to combination of courses that are explicitly online with courses where the students are there in body, but their spirits are online. Perhaps the gains from this shift outweigh the losses, and in any event, the pressures of cost constraints and cultural expectations mean that there's little to done to stem the tide. As faculty and students have less experience with the old pedagogical model, they will all become less well-equipped to participate in it, and it will look even less attractive. Parks is offering a reminder of what is being lost:
[I]t’s also clear that this is the end of a culture in which learning was a collective social experience implying a certain positive hierarchy that invited both teacher and student to grow into the new relationship that every class occasions, the special dynamic that forms with each new group of students. This was one of the things I enjoyed most with teaching: the awareness that each different class—I would teach them every week for two years—was creating a different, though always developing, atmosphere, to which I responded by teaching in a different way, revisiting old material for a new situation, seeing new possibilities, new ideas, and spotting weaknesses I hadn’t seen before. It was a situation alive with possibility, unpredictability, growth. But I can see that the computer classroom and smartphone intrusion are putting an end to that, if only because there’s a limit to how much energy one can commit to distracting students from their distractions.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.