Wednesday, October 01, 2014
An Argument about Online Learning and 'Experience'
Online Learning is poor experience! How much was I reminded of my past life, when I was an young e-mail evangelist and was forced to comparative charts of fax and email, when I was confronted with that statement. There was an element of surreal in the setting too: I was talking to a Senior Manager in a large corporation based in Philippines who do most of their work remotely anyway. But the tone was sincere - it was not an attempt to end the conversation as the coffee had even arrived - and this was a point being made, as I guessed, from the person's own life experience.
This is a difficult debate to engage into. Because it is difficult to argue against experience: If you had a bad meal in a restaurant and I had a good meal there, I can't convince you that the restaurant is good. I can only convince you that your experience was not typical, as much as you can convince me that neither was mine. There was a lot going on in online learning, and every tom and his friends have put up stuff online, sometime calling their assorted powerpoint presentations online learning! If one is exposed to any of those programmes, there is no point arguing how much I have learnt from TED talks or the courses on EDX or Coursera.
However, I needed to engage in this debate because this is not about a specific restaurant but rather the whole cuisine: One bad meal in one restaurant should not disqualify Thai cuisine altogether! Yet, that's how the statement was made, in a broad general terms, implicating all online learning, without betraying a hint of the personal disappointment (which I was only guessing). This stance closes off all routes to empirical argument in a way, without me becoming too overtly intrusive about my hosts own background and experience, or making an impolite leap based on my own assumptions. Considering that the impending coffee allowed me the luxury of a slightly longer conversation, I decided to construct it around the word 'experience' rather than the specifics of the personal exposure.
Because I taught in a range of environments over a long period of time, I found the term 'Learning Experience' always very vacuous. In fact, this is one of those commercially induced terms that the academia has absorbed, as if an university is a hotel or an amusement park. Learning itself is the experience, an act along with its own emotions and engagements, and the extra word stands often for the paraphernalia, the sports clubs and the swimming pools, that undermines the importance of learning.
As Bill Readings would have pointed out (his word was 'Quality'), as universities progressively lost their purpose [modern universities are no more training grounds for clergies or statesmen], they became spaces where the society held on to their young so that it can decide what to do with them. In that sense, experience at the university should actually be regarded as 'anti-experience', because this is about disconnection from life rather than connecting to it. At least, in most cases, this is about sending someone out there to 'prepare for living' rather than living (or living a social life which will no longer be permitted outside). This could be called 'occasion', like going to a spa on a special day: Experience it is only in the expropriated sense that advertisers use it as.
Experience, as in learning, however, is about connecting with life and not disconnecting from it. Therefore, sitting in a classroom far from the maddening crowd is not what we should claim as 'experience', but rather seek out opportunities to engage with real life as often as we can. Online learning is a misnomer - no learning happens online as it can happen only in people's own mind (or, no learning can happen offline, because you don't learn when you are disconnected) - and we should rather measure 'experience' in terms of engagement with real life and work, instead of a special outing which is called the university.
Indeed, there is good and bad online learning programmes, as there are good or bad universities. But, my argument is that we need to rescue the word 'experience' from the advertising induced disuse it has now fallen into. There is an element of absurd when the educators want to hide behind 'experience' to make their case against online learning (not the current context of my conversation, but a very common argument) because they are just embracing commercialism to argue against commercialisation! The real argument, I contended as the coffee arrived, was not about online or offline, but rather what 'experience' the learner is having, and whether we are able to engage the learner with real world (where she will use online and offline sources of learning invariably) or disconnecting her completely and creating a false ideal of privilege and consumption that she will be subservient to all her life.
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How To Live
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Roosevelt
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T S Eliot
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