Tag Archives: distance learning

black bar

Advantages of On-Site Learning

Source Williams College

Though times have changed, a decision to pursue graduate work should come with the hope of doing it full time, on location, and in the company of mentors and peers.

Covid has changed higher education by pushing more undergraduate and graduate work online.  There are a few advantages to working on a degree off site. Part-time students who work full-time can avoid commuting times. And a few subjects may lend themselves to distance learning. But pursuing an academic degree away from the energy of a good graduate program has significant limitations.

For many, the decision to get an advanced degree starts by picking a campus that satisfies financial and geographical limits. Students usually go to graduate school for themselves, not for their parents, picking a field that aligns with their interests. Often a final choice is also shaped by interest in working with particular faculty, or exploring a program’s special features.  We tend to forget that academia can function as a life-changing threshold, where new insights will fire enthusiasms that can last for a lifetime.

The search for practicality can easily douse those fires. Work, Covid and a kind of rampant careerism have too often turned the search for an M.A. or Ph.D. into another form of occupational training. Curiosity for a field’s deeper complexities seems to have been replaced by choosing a program for its ability to deliver a “ticket” of immediate employment.  The model here is perhaps the MBA. Some pursue this degree out of sheer exuberance for the subject.  But most are looking for ways to advance their financial prospects. We accept this, and the likely correlate that communications with instructors may be casual and infrequent. But even while the appeal of distance learning has spread throughout the society, fields of human inquiry especially in the arts, humanities and social sciences can look pale if also seen only as just a “ticket” to a job. A transactional motive for advanced education represents a weakening of what academic inquiry ought to be about.  Universities are now frequently selling jobs and vocational training to make their quotas, but that doesn’t mean talented students should be buying.

High order learning works best as an immersion experience.

In watered-down online programs many of the canons that are part of the traditions of a subject may be left unexplored. Lost is coursework on a campus backed with an expansive range of human and material resources. Mentorship and the goal of seeking knowledge for its own sake also withers.  Learning needs the model of an enthusiastic instructor that can perform their passion for their field.  Those kinds of teachers are why most of us chose academe.

The immersive experience of on site and full-time graduate study has a lot of advantages.  Learning in a room with others is synergistic; discussion enriches understanding of a subject.  Students are likely to make contact with faculty not only in seminar rooms, but in their offices and sometimes their homes.  The exchanges can be personal and direct, replicating the Oxford model, where regular meetings with a teacher are still the norm. Because discussion-based learning is intense, there is little chance to hide in a large classroom or at the other end of a Zoom session. A student has to take ownership of their work and insights in the presence of others.

I remember a time when I was ordered out of a Professor Robert Newman’s office at Pitt after offering an ill-formed conclusion about the conduct of the Vietnam War. Newman easily detected that I had no basis for making some of my glib conclusions: a fact I was about to find out in no uncertain terms. As he pointed to the door, and without looking up from his notes, his uttered a typical Newman exclamation:  “Goddamn it Woodward; go read the reviews!”  He wrote a book on tests of evidence, so I knew I had deserved his displeasure.  And I was thankful to be shown the door rather than his eleventh floor window. His point was that I could leaven my ill-considered conclusions by at least reading some of the long form assessments  written by other scholars.

The intensity of that dressing down-made an impression. With growing confidence I spent time at professor’s houses, got personal coaching on upcoming oral exams, and witnessed the routines of working academics. I was learning to do the kind of critical thinking that is seeded by real conversation.

High order learning should remain an immersion experience. Though times have changed, a decision to pursue graduate work should come with the hope of doing it full time, on location, and in the company of mentors and peers.  Most of us following this route learned as much from the heightened and direct conversation as from the materials studied on a page or screen .

black bar

cropped logo 2

Open book empty desk 5 scaled

It Was Supposed to be Just a Thought Experiment

Does a life continue to hold meaning if it has to be sustained remotely, with devices that only deliver small fragments of ourselves to others?

A seminar I regularly teach in the Philosophy of Communication started at the end of January in a room that comfortably held it’s 16 members, most nearing graduation.  The course considers a range of eclectic thinkers, many focused on how high expectations for communicating with others runs afoul of unseen obstacles. A key premise in the course is that we overestimate what we think we can achieve when we address others. A continuous thread develops on what the effects of “disembodied” communication has done to us as a species.  For most human history life happened in small groups and communities.  Communication was in real time and close spaces.  It was the early Victorians who began to see the wonders of “communication at a distance,” triggered first by the telegraph, and later with electronic refinements that made phones, radio and all of our modern paraphanalia possible.  Charles Cooley, one of the founding figures in the discipline of sociology, took delight in the possibilities of the idea of mass communication.  Others like Henry David Thoreau were not so sure. Thoreau famously pushed for the kind of life that would be fully grounded in the world outside one’s own door. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” he noted, but folks in distant places may “have nothing important to communicate. . .”

Tracing the rise of the tools that make it possible to send verbal artifacts of ourselves to others is a long narrative, especially in terms of the now accepted view that our heads are often far removed from wherever our bodies may be situated.  Demands on our attention can come from anywhere.

Did we lose too much to lose the human birthright of proximity?

One of theorists we considered was Joshua Meyrowitz, who noted that electronic media “destroy the specialness of time and place.”  Building on his concerns are other media theorists, he explores what  happens to the essential communication model of conversation when it is understood to not be direct or synchronous.  Most online platforms we use deliver content in this form. The seminar raised arguments and counterarguments about the effects of living out-of-sync with only verbal or visual fragments.

One day in March we discovered the that the essays we discussed had prepared us for more than these thought experiments.  The seminar became a distance-learning exercise created by the pandemic.  We were in our own spaces and trying to stay in touch to continue to talk about the virtues of being in the same space.

My students, who are far more savvy in using social media, suddenly faced a fully digital future where the world was to be experienced mostly from the old bedrooms they thought they had left for good when they moved to campus. And I suddenly felt like a performer without an audience. Can a seminar based on discussion of common readings really work online? Does it mean as much to connect only with words?

To be sure, campuses have the tools and platforms to deliver a lot of material to students.  But is the residential experience easily expendable?  Did we lose too much to lose the human birthright of proximity?

Most Americans who recently had outside commitments to jobs, organizations or schools are now asking a different form of the same question. Does my work flourish in close contact with others? Is the phone or a Zoom link enough? And most importantly, does a life hold meaning if it has to be sustained by others remotely?

Lately, some of my students have reported how much they miss portions of their prior circumstances based on a lot of face-to-face interaction.  I suppose that view confirmed my own bias as well.  It also made us pause to consider what we’d lost.


1The course included a number of readings by Sherry Turkle, Kenneth Gergen and others, and three books: John Peters’ Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, Joshua Meyrowitz’s No Sense of Place:  The Impact of Media on Social Behavior, and Gary Woodward, The Perfect Response, Studies of the Rhetorical Personality.