When I taught at the University of Central Florida, I kept my distance from distance learning, as online instruction was sometimes called. I told the administrators (who urged us to teach online to generate more "productivity" at cheaper cost than hiring new faculty) that I did not become a teacher to remain isolated in my office behind my screen or to be an impersonal "presence." I said that it was bad for education. I could not imagine not seeing, knowing, interacting with my students.
Today, my university--like many others--enrolls students world-wide in a variety of online courses including what are called MOOCs (massive open online courses). The high school boy I tutor is signing up this week for a summer of online Spanish to make up for a bad grade in a regular class. I wish him well. I don't think he will learn much Spanish, however dutifully he performs the assignments.
In the May 20 issue of the New Yorker, Nathan Heller discussed the push by elite universities to introduce MOOCs presumably to further education beyond the Ivy League and to contribute to democracy; in fact, their motive is money: saving faculty salaries and generating more income.
In this week's issue of the magazine, three letters to the editor address the issue intelligently. One, an English teacher, says what I have long known: that remedial students and many others poorly prepared for college do not do well with technology. It is an obstacle. They need what has always been basic to education: interaction with a live person, the exchange of ideas, the chance to ask questions (which I know can be done remotely, but it is not the same).
Another writer mentions that one of the main benefits of his elite education was the social network that is made impossible by distance learning. He would, he says, be leading a much emptier life without his college friends. He concludes that, as MOOCs develop, the rich (and the fortunate) will be given the time and space to learn conventionally and make lifelong ties while everyone else will be alone in front of a screen: a chilling picture of isolation far removed from education as a human enterprise.
Perhaps distance learning has its place in certain areas, as when specialized courses are not available in remote areas; but in general I would advise anyone who seeks higher education to avoid courses by computer.