DANNY HEITMAN (Southeastern Louisiana University) is a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana and
the author of A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House. He frequently writes about literature and culture for
national publications, including Humanities magazine and The Wall Street Journal.
Remote learning suggests the wonder of great distances
being crossed, but it also hints at a darker reading of
the word “remote” — cold and aloof.
FINDING A CLASSROOM,
WHEREVER YOU ARE
There was no
when I received
my master of arts
diploma in 2013.
I found it in my
mailbox and set
it on the coffee table before heading to
the grocery store — a preview, perhaps,
of what more graduations could feel
like in the age of online learning.
California State University,
Dominguez Hills invited me to campus
for a traditional commencement
ceremony, but I opted not to make the
1,800-mile trek from my Louisiana
home. I wondered, though, what other
rituals of fellowship I’d missed as an
exclusively online student.
Remote learning suggests the wonder
of great distances being crossed, but
it also hints at a darker reading of the
word “remote” — cold and aloof. Is an
online class a true online community,
or just another occasion to wonder
whether “online community” is a
contradiction in terms?
Online classes allowed me to study
at night and on weekends, a big plus
for a mid-career husband and father.
My program quickly dissuaded any
fears I had about my online instruction
amounting to a diploma mill. One of
my literature professors was a Fulbright
scholar and Princeton Ph.D. The faculty’s high standards for writing and research
required the best of me.
I recently reconnected with brick-and-mortar higher education as an adjunct
professor who taught writing twice a week in a typical classroom. I enjoyed the direct
connection with students that my classroom afforded — a familiarity that allowed me
to quickly see when students were confused or bored.
As an older student, I easily adapted to the self-directed ethic of online learning.
But I’m not so sure the college freshmen I instructed would have fared so well as
exclusively online students.
In “The Idea of a University,” Cardinal John Henry Newman argued in the
nineteenth century that higher education must be about more than a student’s
vocational interest. In rubbing shoulders with each other on a traditional campus,
he suggested, students of varied academic specialties could get a profound sense of
how deeply all human knowledge is connected. Though students can’t hope to study
everything, said Newman, “they will be the gainers by living among those and under
those who represent the whole circle.”
Newman envisioned a kind of orchestrated serendipity, in which the chemistry
major and English major bump into each other outside of their respective classes,
both broadened by being drawn to swim beyond their academic ponds. Within
online learning, in which a student buys a package of instruction as sharply defined
as an eBay transaction, the kind of intellectual cross-pollination that Newman
championed might be harder to achieve.
What I want for my children, whether they learn online or in a conventional
classroom, is what Newman wanted for students of his own day — to be surprised by
an idea they didn’t go to seek.