Reply to Stephen Cushman.
I also agree that personal exchange is a sine qua non of learning, that friction between two minds lights the fire that fuels all education. What I think we do not yet know is what ineffable educational benefits are lost when people are not in each other's physical presence. After all, we do not assume such a loss when we are using familiar technologies such as books. Cushman is clearly inspired by John Henry Newman, for instance, who has long been unavailable for conversation; and, although Steve and I live only several miles apart, he seems to have no reservations about using the medium of print to have this disembodied dialogue, in order to gain the compensating benefits of amplification.
But are the various technological substitutions for the physical classroom mere betacarotene pills, compared to the nutritional richness of a carrot? We simply don't know to what degree and ends face-to-face contact between professor and student is necessary. Cushman may be pessimistic in that regard because he is most familiar with computer-aided rather than telecommunicated instruction. What William Wulf rails "telepresence" may have many of the virtues of physical presence. As Wulf says in a paper soon to be published in Issues in Science and Technology, "the fallacy in Cardinal Newman's reasoning was only that he could not imagine quality discourse at a distance--but that is precisely what the technology will enable." That it does so already is suggested by the experience of Guy Bensusan, a professor at Northern Arizona University, who teaches through interactive television. Bensusan describes his travels from one remote teaching site to the next, motivated by the belief that his physical presence would stimulate discussion there. The students were glad to be considered important enough for him to make the effort and said that one visit helped humanize his image on the screen, but he found it made little apparent difference to the liveliness of discussion. He has concluded that his visits may comfort him more than they benefit them.
Bensusan also finds that his Hispanic, Anglo, Native-American, and African-American students mix with and learn from each other, though they are separated by hundreds of miles. Donne convinces me that those who are "inter-assured of the mind / Care lesse eyes, lips, and hands to misse," and those who teach on-line say that virtual pubs, where students can gather just to "chat," provide them an opportunity to develop that inter-assurance.
Nevertheless, I do resonate to the statement by Harvard's president Charles Eliot, who said that if he could build only one building at the university, it would be a dormitory. In the University of Virginia's longitudinal study of the 1988-1992 student cohort, only three of the ten goals students said were important to them "might be said to fall within the realm of traditional academic knowledge." So, rather than looking upon residential education with "antipathy," as Cushman assumes, I hope that residential education will continue as one of our central models of education for those students fortunate enough to enjoy its benefits. Only I hope the campus will not be a gated community, and I hope it will be supplemented by other models of collegiate education for those who are not so fortunate.
I would like to have it all, as Cushman does--to see technology as a quality-enhancing addition to what we now do, to "make new professors, but keep the old." But political and financial considerations that Cushman-the-parent and Cushman-the-citizen recognizes mean that while we exploit the possibilities of the new media, we also must decide what we can stop doing. Otherwise, the differential rate at which faculty salaries and tuitions are likely to rise may well mean that Cushman-the-parent will be unable to afford to send his children to the university at which he teaches. And at least one thing technology can help us do is to reduce classroom time spent imparting information. In Jack Wilson's experimental calculus and physics courses at Renssalear Polytechnic Institute, students learn as much, have better attendance records, and have a more satisfactory experience than they do in the traditional versions of those courses, even though they attend for four rather than six hours a week. I have heard some splendid lectures in my day, but they would have been no less splendid on videotape. And am I the only one who, by the last year of graduate school, felt I could not sit passive for yet another one, however eloquent? Constructing a hypertext version of a classic work in my field, consulting with other students about my problems with the project, and occasionally meeting with the professor would have been a much more educational experience for me. And it would have freed the professor up for guidance, debate, feedback, modeling, mentoring, "familiar conversation," and all the other teacherly functions that technology may help us with but cannot create substitutes for.
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|Title Annotation:||response to article in this issue, p. 613|
|Publication:||New Literary History|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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