National Public Education
3Jun/170

On-line Learning Problems

One of the selling points for the new schemes to privatize the public schools is that the new “choices” available to one and all will include the ability to learn things on-line, without having to bother with expensive teachers, classrooms and textbooks.  One often hears from the advocates for “opting out” of the public school system, and using “our” tax dollars for private education schemes, that this will enable us to access all the riches of on-line education and other “disruptive” ways to learn.  Examples are given of on-line courses with enrollments in the hundreds of thousands.

The problem is that using your computer to get educated doesn't work very well.  It may help you figure out a whole lot of interesting topics, but it is not a very good tool for actually making you better at something, which seems to me to be what education is all about.

I have seen this in my work in Latin.  Latin, it turns out, has always been a kind of on-line course.  The entire curriculum has been unchanged for millennia, and has always been available to all, whether in libraries or on computers.  There is nothing in the course that is not fully explained in some tome or program somewhere.

So, of course, people do try to learn it on their own.  I remember sitting in my Latin teacher’s office at U. of Montana in the 1970’s, listening to a student say that he had to drop the course, but would keep at it on his own, and check back in with the professor now and then.  Dr. Hay, the teacher, always agreed to help them with this.  After the student left I asked him why he agreed to this, since it would obviously mean more work for him.  He replied, “They never come back.”  Not once, in all his long career.  It just doesn’t work.

The problem is that there are simply too many ways to make errors in Latin, or in just about any reasonably complex subject.  A simple sentence might have five words, each with several definitions, and maybe ten different grammar points to figure out, and then several matters of syntax.  It is very hard to see, on your own, whether you are on the right track as you work through all these possible combinations.  Of course you could theoretically just keep trying each different one, but most students give up after about ten or so attempts, far below the total number of possibilities.

I have students tell me all the time that they understand the vocabulary and the grammar of the sentence perfectly and it still doesn’t make sense.  A simple matter of a definition taken in the wrong sense can totally mess up the meaning.  Then, once you are unsure of the meaning of one sentence, it is quite hard to figure out the meaning of the next.  You really don’t know, then, whether you are making any progress at all.

This whole problem is aggravated, it seems, by the use of modern computers.  At least with a dictionary and a grammar book that you can hold in your hands you can come at these problems with a method of approximation.  You can have some idea of what the problem is, and then go to that part of the book and just hunt around until you hit on the answer.  Maybe you chose the wrong word, or the wrong grammar rule.  Other related words and rules are clustered around in the same area of the book, so you might well find the right one.

With a computer program, though, everything has to be entered exactly right, and when that doesn’t work, there is no other option than to just try another word or topic that seems to you, in your ignorance, to be similar.  You don’t get to see the cluster of similar words or topics.  You have to come up with them yourself.  This often means, in my experience, that you don’t ever find the right answer.

The entire idea that teaching is all about presenting information is the wrong way to look at it.  The point is not what the teacher does; it’s what the student does.  What happens in his or her mind is the goal.  Of course it is interesting to make good presentations to students, but this is nothing compared to actually changing them for the better.

When I used to teach both mythology and Latin in college, at the end of the mythology classes, after all my lovely slides and analogies to poetry and art, students would come up and thank me for such a good class.  After Latin class, though, no one ever said that.  All they ever said was, “I think I’m starting to get this.”  The class wasn’t about me; it was about them.

But what is so odd about this, and, of course, the source of the confusion about the value of on-line learning, is that they need the “me” in that room to get a class about “them.”  It would seem that a class all about the students ought to be one that only has students in it, but for some reason this doesn’t work.  We evidently need someone else to help us become who we are and who we can be.  That is really the core problem with on-line learning.

Peter Dodington

June 3, 2017