By James Bishop, Jr.
Technology will tie a tiny fine wire around your soul
From coast to coast, and from Tucson to Dewey, questions are rebounding off the walls of living rooms, city halls, appearing in Op-Ed pages and where teachers gather: Are Americans now focusing far too much on how to use the tools of communication than on ways to better communicate? As a result, are we becoming computer/online gurus who can’t write and think creatively? What’s more, has technology set us back in the field of thinking because we trust gadgets to do our thinking instead of using them to enhance our lives? Answers to those questions—some yes, some no– will be found in Adele Seronde’s latest book, “Looming Breakthrough for the Muse: Occupation Days Ahead.”
However, on one point there’s little disagreement: “Online education is a one-size-fits all,” in the words of Professor Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia. “It tends to be a monologue and no real dialogue.” What does that mean? The internet teacher, even those that respond to a student’s queries, will never have the closeness of contact with the student since the teacher is unable to be sensitive to the student’s inner moods and enthusiasms.
Case in point is the experience of Adam Chandler, a recent graduate of Yale Law School. Choosing to supplement his education he took a university program. He was enthusiastic at the beginning. However, later he wrote, “Soon I felt unsupported. I had no one to impress or disappoint. I struggled to stay motivated. It was impersonal and transactional.”
Other students interviewed for the Seronde book discuss the need for face-to-face classroom meetings because they create accountability and responsibility. In the pre-online world, students attend class and strive to stay alert, concerned about teachers’ reaction should they nod off.
In that corner is Michael Pravica, an associate professor of physics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. For him, there is no better way to inspire and motivate his students than in a class room. “The multidimensional world of questions, extemporaneous answers, spur-of-the-moment thinking, and blackboard problem-solving and shared excitement in learning how the world works will never be replaced by the one-dimensional world of online learning.”
Like climate change and the Tea Party movement, on-line learning has appeared in our lives with little warning. Why the rush? “It is all about money,” states Lorena Williams, a Sedona writer with an MA, now on leave to teach college courses back in the east. “As school administrators make more and more money, and tuitions rise, but not fast enough to cover costs, so enters on-line earning – which is mass education in order to spend less and so that one teacher can teach a thousand students. All the while, full-time teachers are being replaced by adjunct ones and tenure is fast fading.”
To teach in class rooms with live teachers or go on-line and rarely meet one, now there’s a vexing issue! In July, 2012, those two points of view collided, and made headlines everywhere and came close to tearing the University of Virginia apart. Its much-beloved president, Teresa A. Sullivan, was summarily dismissed. Why was she dismissed? Harvard, Yale, M.I.T. and Stanford were moving swiftly so why was UVA lagging? Students marched. Professors complained. Crowds grew and grew larger. As a result, Sullivan was reinstated but not before the public discovered that UVA was lagging. A few weeks later it was announced that UVA, along with other universities, signed with a company called Coursera to develop and offer online classes.
Not to be overlooked is a published remark by Peter Whybrow, an expert in Neuroscience at UCLA. To him, “The computer is like electronic cocaine.” Added Nick Carr, in his book “The Shallows,” charges that “the computer stirs obsessions, dependence, and stress reactions.” But wait, there is more. The brains of internet addicts contain abnormal white matter, in other words they look like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts.”
The debate grows louder by the day. So do voices. “Slowly the arts have been pushed aside in the last 20 years,” I am told by Charissa McCarron, an investment executive from Scottsdale, and mother of small children. “I, like many in my generation, are stuck between technology’s fast pace and the ultimate overthrow of our culture, and realization that personal touch is the best form of learning.”
Pulling it all together is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. Not so to one Arizona high school teacher. “As in life, 80 percent of education is showing up, in person.”