by Susan Post
Over the years, it's been said that a true meeting of the minds can only occur with a physical presence. Starting with Plato, about 370 BC, who supported this theory with an interesting perspective. He wrote that the written word was merely an imitation of the spoken word and that the spoken word was an imitation of our thoughts. So he reasoned that the written word was a copy of a copy and was thus diluted and didn't truly mirror the original thoughts. He thought of writings as ‘dead' text because the author seemed too far removed from it.
Isn't it ironic then, that even today his words are more alive and revered than ever? His writings have initiated more critical thought than any face to face conversation ever will.
How is this possible? The answer lies in his teachings. Plato was never a participant in his writings because he was of the conviction that readers, or learners, must arrive at their own thoughts of conclusion and not take his conclusions into consideration. Where have we heard that before? It could be a slogan for online learning. Every online facilitator must operate on this same principle in order for the students to arrive at a path for learning that is truly their own. Independently discovering the path leads to greater learning because it is self-directed. This brings with it a desire for greater exploration that fuels comprehension and retention.
This article is neither about Plato nor his principles, but rather about the tremendous learning and social bonding possibilities that exist in the written world; possibilities that open doors not only for the mind but for the heart as well. The writings in our online world are not dead, instead they are very alive and fruitful. We masterfully project our personalities and give freely of our thoughts and establish a social resource that holds opportunities for immense learning and community building. This is an area that is widely overlooked by Dr. David Noble, a professor at York University, who is one of the biggest critics of online education.
In his writings, Digital Diploma Mills, he makes several unfounded accusations. He states: "Study after study seems to confirm that computer-based instruction reduces performance levels and that habitual Internet use induces depression." (Noble, 1998). Unfortunately, Dr. Noble neglects to include references that back up this claim. I think it is also important to note that "computer-based instruction" is a term that encompasses a wide array of instruction with each of them showing different results in performance levels. It is as saying that all face-to-face instruction is lecture-based and uniformly boring.
Dr. Noble also latched on to a faculty protest, calling it bold and eloquent. This brief excerpt clearly misrepresents online education in practice. It makes me wonder if Dr. Noble or the composers of this protest have ever taken an online class.
"Education is not reducible to the downloading of information, much less to the passive and solitary activity of staring at a screen. Education is an inter-subjective and social process, involving hands-on activity, spontaneity, and the communal experience of sharing in the learning enterprise...." (Noble, 1998).
In a subsequent paper, Dr. Noble reinforces the notion that interpersonal relationships are simply not possible online and that we can not gain knowledge as it is gained through self-knowledge in interpersonal relationships (Noble, 1999).
I find it interesting that Dr. Noble does not consider that the quality of online education is a personal and subjective matter of opinion. As a veteran of over 30 online classes, some might say that I would be in a much better position to make a value judgment of this nature. Every class that I've taken was neither a "passive" nor a "solitary" experience. I've found great enjoyment in online classroom interactions that are not of a temporary nature. I've gained self-knowledge because I honed my critical thinking skills through extensive and heart-felt classroom dialogue. And, I am not the least bit depressed, which I should be by now according to Dr. Noble.
Dr. Noble and Plato do have some things in common: Plato's motto, inscribed on the temple at Delphi, read "Know thyself" which has a familiar ring to Dr. Noble's statements about self-knowledge. Both have clearly dedicated a lot of their studies to the importance of self-discovery and how it relates to gaining knowledge and wisdom; their contributions will forever inspire minds. However, both have also displayed an inflexible opinion about the broad potential of written communication.
We do not merely communicate online with factual text that leaves no trace of a human touch. Online communities are no different than face-to-face communities with respect to its core resource, human interaction. We share personal experiences, we are responsive and emotionally supportive, we edify and are edified, we "live" in our writings because it is a reflection of who we are. We use them to build a social structure that serves the common good of the community at hand, regardless of the communication transmission medium.
To the critics I say with all due respect, "Options are never a bad thing." We all learn differently, feel differently, and communicate differently. The online medium provides another option for learning and community building, it is not a threat to their existence. Each individual is the best judge when choosing his or her options for learning. Finding the most effective, efficient, and enjoyable path for learning is not determined by statistics nor is it determined by scholars...it is determined by the individual.
To all online learners and community builders, I say that we must continue to strive for honest and heartfelt communication and not let it get platonic. If we remove ourselves too far from our writings, Plato's theory about "dead" text and Dr. Noble's accusations about the lack of self-knowledge can materialize and threaten the social processes that give online learners a well-rounded education.
"And what is good, Phaedrus? And what is not good? Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?"
-- Plato [Symposium]
David F. Noble, 1998. Digital Diploma Mills – Part III: The bloom is off the rose.
Retrieved 2/10/02: http://www.flipside.org/features/
David F. Noble, 1999. Digital Diploma Mills – Part IV: Rehearsal for the Revolution.
Retrieved 2/10/02: http://www.flipside.org/features/
Retrieved 2/10/02: http://plato-dialogues.org/plato.htm