Higher Ed’s Technology Blind Spot: a Response to Sherry Turkle

Higher Ed’s Technology Blind Spot: a Response to Sherry Turkle

We’ve written this article in response to the recent EdSurge interview with Sherry Turkle, which raised some interesting conversations at our campus, California State University Channel Islands (CI).

Like Turkle, we agree that human relationships and personal connections are at the core of meaningful experiences in education and college teaching. And, like Turkle, we are concerned that the predominant uses of technology in higher education—both in the workplace and the classroom—do not place human connections and conversations at their center. However, we feel that Turkle’s perspective, and the perspective of most individuals in higher education, possesses a blind spot. And this blind spot prevents us from seeing how web-based technologies can foster empathetic exchanges and meaningful relationships at a distance.

Higher education is deeply entrenched in face-to-face traditions that, by nature, situate technology as an add-on to in-person conversations. Turkle notes the problem of students who seek to replace meeting with professors in their offices with an email. That’s not a substitute—we agree. But this viewpoint fails to embrace the powerful ways that technology can empower learners to grow into the type of student who will, someday, visit a professor during office hours.

With any new medium, early explorers tend to recreate what went before. Much of what passes for innovation in online education is an attempt to reproduce the classroom—and often not what works best in the classroom. Static visuals, long blocks of text and discussion boards were the staples of much of the first generation of online classes. Most MOOCs, despite the claims of innovation and disruption, consisted of video lectures and text-based assignments. Thus, the impression that most people have of online education is an attempt to create an online lecture.

We know now that lectures have limitations when used as the primary or exclusive format for a class—even a face-to-face class. Motivated teachers learn to overcome at least some of these limitations and strive to build direct connection and engagement with their students. After all, when you’re standing in front of a room of students and trying to help them learn what you have to teach, you get immediate feedback in the form of the attention—or inattention—of your audience. The good teacher learns to gauge the energy in her classroom or lecture hall, and uses strategies to build connection and engagement.

And when faculty make the transition to online teaching, we often hear them say, “I’m taking my class online,” which implies an attempt to recreate the lecture experience. This recipe for disengagement is the dominant model of online education and deserves all the criticism that Turkle and others have to offer.

But there are powerful and exciting alternative models of online learning that emphasize the connection between teacher and learner, models that in our experience can strengthen that critical bond beyond what can often be achieved in the face-to-face classroom. We are seeing these models emerge, but only after faculty experience how it feels to be a student in a humanized online class. The following quote from a faculty participant in CI’s Humanizing Online Learning class demonstrates this impact:

“I almost wanted to quit [the class]. The empathy shown by [our instructor] drove me to wanting to get it done... If nothing else, to let her know her believing in me did not go unnoticed or unappreciated. I used to have the belief that I have very little to do with the success of my online students. I used to tell them that I have all the ... videos made, all the resources are there for them, and eventually, it is up to them to succeed. ... I was very wrong in saying I have little to do in [sic] their success. I have forgotten what it was like to be a student, and I am glad to have seen it from the other side.”

By using strategies that emphasize the humanity of learner and teacher, by helping students connect not just with the instructor but also with each other, we are seeing a new generation of online learning that nourishes the individual differences that face-to-face interactions shut down. When students enter a college classroom, each of them brings a unique blend of experiences and abilities, which can impact their willingness to speak in front of a group. We are all familiar with the dynamics of a college classroom. There are those who contribute and those who don’t. The online environment is more likely to give all students a voice.

Learning is a process that unfolds over time and at different rhythms. Asynchronous interactions, which should not be confined to text-based discussion forums, are different from those that occur in a live classroom, but they should not be considered inferior.

Learning is a social activity. When we forget that, we risk damaging our students. In that, we have far more agreement with Turkle than disagreement. What we object to is the implicit assumption that online learning cannot be social and doesn’t promote deep connection between and among teachers and learners. Let’s reject models of online learning that depersonalize students and turn teachers into faceless laborers. Instead, let’s celebrate those who are developing a new future of online learning that offers tremendous possibilities for our students—and a deeply rewarding experience for teachers.

Michelle Pacansky-Brock (@brocansky) is a Teaching and Learning Innovations Specialist and A. Michael Berman (@amichaelberman) is Vice President for Technology and Communication at California State University Channel Islands.

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