In Defense of the Gold Standard: Some Thoughts on Michael Brooks' Essay on Online Teaching

By Neal, Donn | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

In Defense of the Gold Standard: Some Thoughts on Michael Brooks' Essay on Online Teaching


Neal, Donn, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


Perhaps it is no surprise that someone like me, a retired faculty member at a liberal arts college, would wince his way through the essay on online courses that appears in this issue of Teaching History. But despite my personal skepticism about such courses, my response to that essay is less a critique or a rebuttal of it than it is a passionate defense of what I regard as the gold standard of higher education: the venerable, valuable, but now seemingly vulnerable tradition of a teacher-led, on-campus, classroom-based, interpersonal education that has served us so well for so long. It behooves us to think about how invaluable the several elements and attributes of this gold standard are before we send it packing, because, if we do, we will be hard pressed to bring it back.

I am no Luddite (hey, I too have a smart phone). Neither am I naive or foolish enough to think that all online, computer-based, distance learning is invalid or inappropriate. Nor do I think that the teaching and learning model I revere is the only one teachers should use. My own experience in a dozen years of teaching involved experimenting with a variety of models. Then, I helped to devise and lead a consortial program that assisted college faculty members to rethink and refresh their teaching strategies and skills and that emphasized having different arrows in one's quiver for different situations. After that, overseeing the creation of a competency-based certification program for a national professional society afforded me an opportunity to understand how training exercises can be a key component in learning. Finally, serving for a number of years as the director of an education and training program for a Federal agency brought me a deeper sense of how both of these teaching and learning processes can work together harmoniously when used appropriately.

But all of these experiences, while exposing me to and helping me to appreciate a broader panoply of learning styles and formats, also strengthened my affection and appreciation for the gold standard I have described. To paraphrase an advertisement I recently saw: Interactive classroom teaching sessions led by a skilled professional do not just set the bar for successful teaching, they are the bar when it comes to inculcating and honing the critical-thinking tools and habits that enable a mind to survive and succeed, especially in an information-laden, rapidly changing, and multi-voiced environment. We need more of these opportunities, not fewer.

Of course, the gold standard I describe is not the only path to learning. Studying on one's own obviously has its own special place at the center of an education. Two or more people cannot read a book together, at least for long; joint research is a tricky beast to master; and group projects are a different species altogether. And thinking things through in the quiet of one's own head when new ideas come along, and again in moments of retrospection, will always be the most important intellectual activity we can engage in.

At some point, though, education must become a shared experience. Confining larger and larger swaths of learning to passive or solitary study isolates individuals from the greater energy and stimulation of communal learning. It is the confluence of disparate attitudes and minds, of a multiplicity of interests and intellects, that sparks the sort of learning environment that one admires and envies, not only on campuses but in such other give-and-take exercises as corporate board meetings, political strategy sessions, advertising agency brainstorming, medical conferences, musical collaborations, and similar situations where the principal goals are sharing and evaluating information, insights, and inspirations while building a capacity to do these things even better.

So in our enthusiasm to explore and exploit the very real potential of online methodologies and experiences (a not-surprising by-product of a trendy and device-dependent society that is also eager to pare personnel costs to the bone), let's not carelessly discard the tried and true teaching and learning experiences we know can work well when they are done right. …

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