With the impact of new technologies, higher education is changing (again). Online classes have gotten fairly sophisticated, so that instructors can now interact with students through email, voice, and video. Testing is now online through Blackboard and other services. There are also rumblings of experimenting with high quality video lectures from a senior professor (sort of a The Great Courses experience) that a school could purchase, and then a junior instructor would show those lectures while providing conversation and evaluation. There was a possible move to this for churches and preaching some years ago, but it never really materialized (beyond the large churches with multiple locations, which sometimes use a video feed from the mother church).

There is an overall push towards more online classes from both schools and students, as it saves money for everyone. This is not necessarily a bad reason. Higher education has changed before and will change again. Costs shift with time and technology, and the only question is one of adaptation. The resistance is from faculty, whose expectations and experiences don't line up with this sort of transformation. I know I have never taken an online course as a student, so it would be a challenge to teach one (but not impossible). Additional resistance comes from traditional students and their families often want that "college experience," sort of like the Grand Tour from earlier eras, where students have the whole dorm, friends, activities, study overseas, and classroom experiences.

Ultimately, these technological transformations mean we must question the value of classtime. What is it for? What can it do that nothing else can? For example, I had a class in grad school where the professor simply read the lecture to us. This is clearly not a good use of our time, except for a time to ask questions at the end. Those lectures could have been read much more quickly by us on our own.

I think the stress of classtime needs to be around dramatic engagement with the material and dialogue, almost an improvisational dramatic performance involving the teacher and the students. This is something that a video or online course cannot do well (although video conferencing continues to improve here). When students are able to actively engage, process, and respond to the material, then classtime becomes crucial. The best example is the seminar-style class, where students have had the introductory classes and are ready to have a more high level discussion. But even introductory classes can become a place for some sort of dramatic encounter with great texts and ideas. The conclusion and actual journey through the topic is not scripted, but comes out of a dialogue between teacher and students. That is an experience that reading and writing on your own from an online class simply cannot replicate.

The humanities especially need this sort of active, collegial engagement because they are so often about subtlety of thought. Seeing ambiguity, speaking clearly and precisely, defining words and concepts carefully – this is something that is observed, practiced, and learned, and classtime is the perfect crucible for it. Seeing the instructor speak, respond to questions, and engage students becomes critical for this kind of thinking. The class becomes more than a simple memorization and regurgitation; it becomes a class in how to think. In some ways the material matters less than the approach, and any humanities class can achieve this sort of thinking, whether it be literature, history, philosophy, or theology.

It may be that online video chats might someday be able to largely replicate this experience, but the nuances of posture and communication are still not present in a video chat. They require active presence, listening, processing, and responding.

This is why I don't allow electronics in my classes (except for me!). I find that phones and computers are too tempting a distraction. I want everyone engaged as much as possible, and the spirit may be willing but the flesh (and the social) is weak. If I'm actively discussion something with the students, then our minds need to be actively thinking together through the issue at hand. Even PowerPoint can be a distraction in this regard, as it tempts the students to write down the points and look ahead to the next sub point, rather than consider the question at hand.

Technology has actually helped classtime, in that much of the tedium of the process of teaching – preparing syllabi, communicating with students, grading, typing and handwriting papers, and so on – has been improved with technology. Things that would have taken a day to do now take an hour. We used to spend classtime on getting students names, taking roll, even course evaluations. With technology, more of a classtime can be spent on the material at hand, and not the administration of the class.

Classtime has many frustrations. Students may be tired, bored, and/or unprepared. Many of them have poor listening skills and are not used to this kind of thinking and engagement, where every word and concept matters. But when classtime works, it really shines, and so I do not give up hope.

Posted
AuthorKevin Taylor