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Originally published Saturday, August 18, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Con: Online learning turns college into assembly line

Online learning may solve problems of tuition and the state budget, but it is not a solution to the major problem facing America today: teaching people how to think for themselves

Special to The Times

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THE brave, not-so-new world of online higher education, so breathlessly advancing via Coursera and other so-called content providers, is being heralded as a game-changer for higher education. The University of Washington recently said it would start offering free online courses through Coursera, a startup led by two Stanford professors.

Commodified, one-size-fits-all education is indeed a solution to many problems, including crushingly high tuition, college selectivity, state budget problems and the mania for credentialing. Unfortunately, it is not a solution to the major problem facing America today: teaching people how to think for themselves.

It also is a one-way ticket to undermining one of America's universally admired crown jewels: research universities. Online degree and certificate programs are the right answer to the wrong questions, and could end up killing America's research engine, the goose that laid the golden eggs.

Stand-alone, self-paced, peer-graded online courses are epistemologically naive insofar as they assume that learning is a noun but never a verb -- that knowledge arrives pre-measured and pre-cut, and isn't construed or constructed by an actual, unique person, aka a student. It turns education into an instrumentalist assembly line rather than a customized, highly personal developmental process, composed of equal parts of prior information and concept formation, skepticism and conjecture.

Many online courses strip the learning process of context in several critical ways. For example, by demanding answers every few minutes in the form of quizzes, they can't provide enough reflective time or space for those all-important "it all depends on what you mean by" realizations. They also don't offer the greatest of all educational gifts: getting "stuck." You remember the challenge of not knowing an answer and having to somehow reason your way to getting unstuck. Profoundly challenging learning needs the oxygen of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Another context that's missing from online courses is the sense of disciplinarity. They do not convey what it means to think like a historian (or economist or chemist) -- to understand why academic tribes like to ask certain questions in certain ways. Taken piecemeal, these courses are not integrated across a curriculum -- there's nothing cumulative or iterative about the learning. Even successful online students are doomed to being intellectually lopsided if they don't take a cohesive series of courses.

Also lost is face-to-face contact between students and faculty. Teachers need to know when students are bored, baffled or excited, and students need to actually witness a professor answering a challenging question in real time, modeling the very critical thinking skills that are actually the point of higher education and the genesis of research. Students need that incomparable moment when they timidly venture an oral comment or question and the professor validates them by saying "that's a really good question" in a way that actually sounds sincere. These are typically the most cherished moments in an undergraduate education, and they will be lost in the anonymity of post-midnight chat rooms.

It all comes down to respecting how collaborative knowledge construction is at the heart of the research process and artistic creativity. Knowing is not just spitting back a received truth, but being able to explain how you've reached the conclusions you have -- what rules-of-thumb, assumptions and inferences you've used to arrive at your answer; what the canons of evidence are for making your argument; what counts as an example, or a good source, or a needed qualification; how to formulate and support a hypothesis.

It's only after you've developed such habits of mind that you can call yourself a burgeoning researcher or practitioner, applying your already-formed knowledge to novel situations, or applying it in new ways to past questions or received truths or ways of doing things.

To be sure, challenging, open-ended online courses can potentially embody many of these principles of inquiry-driven critical thinking. But the bulk of them are going to be part of a reckless race to conventional facts, truths and techniques, not a careful approach that would nurture the skepticism that produced those end products in the first place. And, in the long run, this uncritical, lock-step approach to thinking is a dire threat not only to higher education but also to citizenship, which desperately needs people who know how to think rather than what to think.

Rick Roth has taught at the University of Washington and Skidmore College, and has been a UW academic adviser for 24 years.

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