What worries me most about online courses is something else. Every pedagogical situation can be thought of as a kind of triangle among three parties: the student, the teacher, and the world that student and teacher investigate together. In online courses, the patch of world under examination is highly curated: educators select exactly what material will inhabit the course’s online environment. In short, the pedagogical triangle gets collapsed into a binary relationship between student and teacher.
The problem with this arrangement is that it emphasizes one particular and narrow view of what purpose college serves. Courses are seen mainly as steps in accreditation, as obstacle courses that students must run to demonstrate suitability for certain jobs. Online courses serve this function well, because they assess continuously: the student’s keystrokes, his underlining, even his time viewing each screen are all logged and analyzed.
There is no doubt that continual assessment can improve pedagogy: a teacher can catch and quickly remedy misunderstandings. However, one reason conversations like the one prompted by pistol shrimp are so deeply gratifying is that they have nothing at all to do with assessment or accreditation. They are not on the syllabus or the final exam. Rather, they are reminders that college serves purposes entirely unrelated to accreditation: courses prompt and equip students to investigate the world, leading not merely to a diploma and a salary, but to a more engaged life — not just to a richer bank balance, but to a richer existence.'
But when the educational triangle is collapsed — when the outside world loses its stature as a full-blown third party — then you don’t take a course to understand the world, you take a course to succeed in the course. Education gets reduced to a testing and triage service.