Why Teach Online: Condensed from A Keynote Address to the Second Annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference

Every time we teach an online course, we learn something new and unsettling about ourselves. Our role is changing; so is that of our students. Before I go into detail about these changes and the impact they're having on us, I want to try first to explain what online teaching is -- better said, what it is not.

1. It's NOT cheaper or easier than F2F teaching. On the contrary, it's extremely costly in time, energy, and imagination.

2. It's NOT for everyone. We come to think everyone must be as temperamentally suited to these machines as we are. But the computer-literate are a tiny fraction of the student population, and the teacher population isn't much better. Even among the computer-literate, the proportion who enjoy them is pretty small.

3. It's NOT better than face-to-face teaching. Compared to a normal chalk & talk classroom, the computer monitor is an information desert. In the classroom, nonverbal communication never sinks below a roar; even the student who's totally clueless sends out an SOS with every glassy-eyed blink.

4. It's NOT the wave of the future. Within a decade, interactive digital video (maybe we'll call it "face mail") could make us pine for the good old days of e-mail, when literacy almost made a comeback. The F2F experience, whether live or asynchronous, will dominate the Net/Web /next damn thing because it will provide more information, especially nonverbal, than text-based media can ever hope to.

5. It's NOT organized like a F2F course. We may try to impose some kind of hierarchical, linear order on it, but the online medium remains essentially hypertextual. Just as the basic unit of hypertext discourse is the "chunk," a screenful of text or graphics, the basic unit of online learning is some kind of free-standing idea, almost like a sound bite.

6. It's NOT a pure medium. Delivering a course only online is pointless, as I learned years ago from some high-school students I was mentoring. They were having trouble getting access to their school's computer, so we weren't exchanging as many messages as we should have. When I said, "Well, you could always fax me, and I could fax you back" -- I suddenly realized I'd been an idiot to stick to the Net alone when we could have phoned, faxed, or even sent snail mail. Online instruction is far more effective, I've since learned, as just one element of a delivery system.

7. Finally, it's NOT politically identical to F2F teaching. As I observed earlier, online education is changing our roles. It's encouraging an egalitarian mentor-apprentice relationship, in which it's sometimes hard to tell who's mentoring whom.

In the course of learning these seven points, I've had to look at their implications.

1a. If computer instruction is so expensive, can we afford it? Every school in North America is fighting to keep a little money available for capital spending on something *besides* computers. No school thinks it can actually keep up with technology; we just hope we won't fall too far behind.

2a. If online instruction isn't for everyone, should we be investing so much energy and money in something that benefits only a few? Will they *all* be using computers online when they go into the working world? And isn't our obsession with the online medium especially wasteful from the point of view of the minorities we're supposed to be helping-minorities who have less access to computers (and often less interest in them) than middle-class whites like ourselves?

3a. If online teaching isn't better than F2F, can we justify going online at all? Are we giving the homebound student, the rural student, the workplace student a pallid imitation of a real education? If so, are we really providing improved access, or just a scam?

4a. If the present text-based systems won't last, and interactive digital video is the real wave of the future, why not wait until technology provides a real equivalent to the interactivity of the classroom?

5a. If online courses are basically hypertextual, but both we and our students are more comfortable with linear exposition, why are we fooling around with a medium that's intrinsically hostile to the way we think and read and write?

6a. If it's foolish to rely solely on the Net or Web, then what particular aspects of teaching and learning are uniquely suited to the online medium? Under what conditions?

7a. The mentor-apprentice relationship isn't automatically superior to other kinds of learning relationships. We went into teaching, in part, because we understood and liked the classic teacher-student relationship. What's so great about being a mentor, anyway?

These are not rhetorical questions; they are deadly serious, fundamental challenges to online teaching and learning. So having raised all these questions, I guess I'd better try to answer them.

1b. Computer instruction is expensive, but it's getting cheaper every day. Moore's Law predicts that whatever you spent today on your computer, in 18 months you'll get twice the power for the same price. Computers today are like pocket calculators in 1977; by 2007, or much sooner, we'll be buying them in stationery stores like clipboards or binders.

So what we're spending now is really tuition expenses: some of us have to learn when it's costly to do so, so that we can transmit our hard-earned knowledge to the next generation.

2b. As the technology becomes ever cheaper and ever more common, traditionally disadvantaged groups will find ways to exploit the medium in startling new ways.

The music played in Mississippi Delta juke joints almost a century ago had no connection to Thomas Edison's wax-cylinder recordings; who would have imagined that the musical descendants of Charlie Patton would use recording technology to express their art from Tupelo to Tokyo? I think we will soon see an astounding Renaissance in the ghettos and barrios as computer technology reaches cultures that have plenty to say in the medium, but not yet the means to say it.

3b. For the isolated student, the online course may not be quite the same as a class in "meatspace," but it may literally be a lifeline. More than once, I've encountered such students and found that their computer monitor was an escape from a small school that couldn't begin to meet their needs, or from a trailer camp where they were effectively jailed by their scanty pensions.

4b. We are trying to master a transient technology while superior technologies loom in the future. But remember the wonderful moon base in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Didn't quite happen like that, did it? Computer technology may not deliver all the bells and whistles it's promised; in the meantime, we've got a text-based system that lets us communicate across the planet. We might as well get good at it.

5b. I suggested that hypertext is hostile to the way we "normally" think in logical, linear concepts. Actually, we think more the way minestrone soup cooks, with ideas rising unpredictably from the depths, like beans or pasta, and then sinking back again. We can train ourselves to think and write linearly, but it's not the only way. Hypertext has its uses as well, and it imposes its own discipline; for some teachers and students, it is a discipline worth accepting. If nothing else, the hypertext writer must make a major leap of empathy into the reader's mind, anticipating both bafflements and insights.

6b. What specific kinds of teaching can flourish online? Well, it does really well as a kind of one-on-one tutorial medium. Most of us know how we react to personal e-mail: Woops, here comes a message aimed at me alone. Suddenly we're attentive, curious to know what someone wants to tell us. If the someone is our teacher, we pay attention as we do when we're in her office to get the response to our latest essay.

For many students (maybe most), that kind of personal attention is critically important. It says, You are important, what you do matters, and it matters especially that you do it well. Until students learn that lesson, they learn nothing.

7b. If the classic student-teacher relationship is psychologically satisfying, so what? Slaveowners used to think they really benefited their slaves. Who among us hasn't enjoyed a quiet, sadistic thrill at announcing what the class would have to do on the big term paper, or to prepare for a quiz? It's a buzz, all right. Like a bottle of good vodka, and ultimately just as dangerous.

Because no one knows much about online learning, we're all de facto learners here. I think that's much healthier for us, as teachers, than to feel we're exempt from having to learn anything more. If we consider ourselves continuing learners in our disciplines as well, we will deal with our students more constructively: we will learn more and better, and so will they.

One of the things we will learn about is our own role and the function of institutional education in an online world. We may sometimes be a stimulus to our offline colleagues, and sometimes just a pain in their collective ass. If we are to serve them well, we need to show them how the computer can help them do what they want to do anyway, instead of making them feel they've been shanghaied to destinations they didn't choose and don't care about. Technology should offer them choices, not requirements.

Exactly the same is true of our students. We should be helping them advance toward their own goals, not co-opting them for our own. This doesn't mean allowing them to fool around aimlessly; it means encouraging them to be self-propelled toward ambitious but realistic goals. "Cybernetics" comes from the Greek word for "steersman"; we should teach students how to steer for themselves.

If we are going to offer real online access to colleagues and students, sometimes we are going to have to counsel conservatism and caution. Too many of us have rushed into ill-conceived projects, imagining that good intentions and elbow grease would make up for real lacks in planning or hardware or tech support. If our offline colleagues begin to think that online learning really is glamorous, they may jump into the deep end only to get into trouble. We owe them better counsel; the ultimate payoff is too big to risk.

That payoff, I believe, will be a radical re-conception of the learning process and the roles of the participants. Somewhere in the fairly recent past, education fell into the hands of the bean-counters. Nowhere in Plato do we learn how many evening symposiums were required for a Socratic certificate. Alexander the Great never had to send back to Aristotle for a transcript of his grades. Custer went to West Point; Crazy Horse didn't.

J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons. We measure out our own in credit-hours and essays submitted and MLA-approved citation format. This bureaucratization generates a lot of clerical work and committee meetings, but I really doubt that it advances genuine self-propelled learning.

After all, what we learn ought to surprise us, open up unexpected opportunities, create whole new industries and cultures. Bureaucrats can deal only with the known, the predictable, the measurable. No bureaucrat anticipated the Internet; no bureaucrat can control the World Wide Web.

We online teachers are domesticated beasts suddenly at liberty, like the conquistadors' horses running wild on the Texas plains. If we can learn how to be free, and how to stay free, then we can teach the same freedom to our students. I can't imagine a nobler calling.