E-Learning – The Online Folly?


While we – the teachers may be the experts of the subject being taught, students can help us learn more about the art of education. Accepting this may help us tackle a perplexing puzzle with which colleges and universities now struggle: online education. For some schools like my own, this puzzle very nearly spelled the end.

A short time ago our university president was expeditiously fired and then just as quickly reinstated. The main argument for her dismissal was her failure to implement a working system of online learning. After all, several other schools were on the e-learning wagon: Stanford, Harvard, M.I.T., among others. So it seemed as though we were lagging, while the competition thrived. Veritably, it was announced this week that several more universities (including our own) had contracted with the company Coursera, who will assist in the development and set-up of online courses.

Will online education ever really rival the quality of brick-and-mortar schools, though?


Teaching – a Two-Way Street

This is where the student-teacher relationship hits the spotlight. A colleague recently lamented: “It’s not just about teaching students, it’s about learning’ ‘em too.” It took me a moment to catch on, but beyond the hillbilly vernacular was a very clear point.

Teaching our students is just as much about educating them, as it is about us as teachers learning who the students are. ‘Facetime’ is the key to successful communication with students.

The summer Shakespeare course which I currently teach is extremely complex and requires the comprehension of several facets. In order to be successfully learned I must be able to ascertain the potential of my students to interpret the material. Can they wrap their minds around the complexity of the plots? No? Perhaps it’s time to introduce a well-made film to break them in. Is the linear vernacular too difficult? If so, we must allot the necessary time to cover each speech word for word.

A Great Blues Piece

Each memorable class can be likened to a great blues piece. You have the fundamental rhythm, representing the syllabus. The improvised guitar is much the same as the improvisation integral to the class, laying extra color over the rhythm and beat.

Through pragmatic means – quizzes and essays, the best of educators would find ways of keeping us tuned in. They seemed to have some sort of ‘teachers only’ ESP, honing in on our mood. A keen sense kept them abreast to changes: when we’d nod-off, when we were more attentive…to which they’d immediately react. A simple joke would be like the beacon of a lighthouse on a misty seaside, reaching out to connect with us.

Dialogue and Teaching

Sizable lecture classes also act as a means of epicenter from which intellectual communities are born. Beyond the core classroom, students will cross paths and interact, finding common ground and find them able to break the ice with those they may otherwise shy away from. It’s always nice to hear a student tell me that they and their friends have lively debates regarding the topics covered in class. When this happens, I feel I’ve done something right. I can now fluidly assimilate this knowledge into my teaching strategy for each class, an action not easily matched by online instructors.

Online learning, conversely, lacks this teacher-student dynamic. The courses also lack the immensely critical immediacy of interaction. Emails take time to get from one person to another, not to mention the time spent writing. In this way, it can not really be considered a dialog.

The Dynamics of Teaching

I recently reviewed a pre-filmed online course from Yale. While the instructor was extremely intelligent and graciously articulate, the course was doomed to fail. Much like ‘Cheers’ was recorded before a live studio audience, so was this course. It was all very anonymous feeling. The worst part is that one could just as easily have enjoyed a coffee at Barnes and Noble and digested a good book on the subject – and would have taken more away from the experience.

Truly memorable classes are always going to be those with a great student-teacher dynamic. True learning comes from intellectual community, something learned from Socrates. In practical cases, education comes from the collaboration between teacher and student which also leads to the satisfaction of acquiring new skills or knowledge. As with anything mechanized or digitized in this age, the prospect of e-learning seems doomed to be sought by those seeking solitude. It’s certainly a very lonely place for teachers and students alike.


Shan Ronald  is a  comparative literature  graduate, Expert in Chinese language who is an enthusiastic blogger and holds an editorial position in “Born in China” – a Chinese learning center that provides aid to those interested in learning Chinese and Mandarin.

Image Credit: Insafe