The Tidal Wave of the New


The use of the Internet in education is an unstoppable trend. Even my own English department offers courses either fully or partially online, which many of my colleagues and most administrators enthusiastically support.

I admit to being ambivalent. Online learning looks suspiciously like those correspondence courses that used to be advertised on TV in the 1960s and ’70s. No one took those courses seriously then; what suddenly makes them valid and desirable now? Isn’t it simply that the delivery system has been perfected, and colleges and universities can make vast amounts of money by putting their coursework online?

Although some of my colleagues say that their students love online learning—it allows for more flexibility in their busy lives and encourages the shy and less confident to come out of their shell—I don’t believe that the pros could possibly outweigh the cons.

Still, I am suspicious of my own response and wonder whether my preference is tainted by self-interest and laziness. Does age bring wisdom or does it bring old-fogeydom—a tendency to remain attached to familiar ideas? I recall being on the other side of similar sorts of debates over the years. In one case, for example, I battled with a colleague who insisted that civilization was coming to an end because endnotes had replaced footnotes in scholarly papers. Another colleague railed against the disappearance of “proper” dress in the classroom—he held stubbornly to jackets and ties for professors, and modest apparel for students. The cleavage his female students were showing sent him into a dither and eventually forced him (of his own accord) to take early retirement. Another colleague took offense at the continual updating of literature anthologies. He insisted that the earlier editions were better, and thus continued to order the remaindered copies of these books until they disappeared from the marketplace. He then took to making photocopies until the campus copy center, fearing a lawsuit, refused to accommodate him. Finally, with all recourse to his precious anthologies gone, he retired.

In the end, a certain philosophical resignation seems called for. Innovations will occur whether we oppose them or not; at some point, our preferences will be swept away by the great tidal wave of the new.

I like seeing students in the flesh, connecting their writing to their physical being: their clothes and their haircuts, their postures and the cadences of their voices. But I know that virtual reality may bring into relief aspects of being that would otherwise be obscured or undeveloped. Internet teaching is not just a new delivery system for learning, it is a new delivery system for being. And what bothers me perhaps is that it is fast rendering my own kind of being obsolete. When this occurs (God grant that I know it when it happens), it will be time to retire.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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