Does Online Education Rest on a Mistake?

Donald Philip Verene

Does online education rest on a mistake? It does. It mistakes information for education and training for teaching.

Correspondence Courses and Online Courses

Decades ago, universities developed divisions of correspondence courses that later came to be called “distance learning” and variants thereof. The original correspondence courses were offered through the mail. A faculty member designed an academic term’s worth of weekly lessons. These were completed one at a time by students, at their own pace and in their own place of residence.

Looking back from the vantage point of online instruction, this system seems antiquated and inefficient, yet the older correspondence system is exactly the same in concept as online instruction today, because both are unable to provide the actual, live co-presence of teacher and student. I maintain that this co-presence is the heart of education—that there is no substitute for it, and, moreover, it cannot be modified or even supplemented by online means. The classroom is different in kind from the presence of student and teacher as electronic images of one another, whether transmitted in “real time” or by video recordings. An image of a person is not a person. A video lecture is not a lecture. Passing responses back and forth in electronic media is not a conversation or a dialogue.

Online instruction is not in principle definable because technology only pauses; it never remains fixed and it progresses not by simply taking in more content but by the modification of itself into ever-new forms. As Jacques Ellul, the philosopher and sociologist of technology, says, technology is self-augmenting. Its self-augmentation is governed by two laws: technical progress (1) is irreversible and (2) tends to act in accordance with a geometric, not an arithmetic progression.1 The technological format of online instruction can vary from an electronic version of the antiquated study by correspondence to video lectures to forums that allow students to collaborate on projects and conduct their own sessions and interchanges.

The guiding principle is that anything that can be accomplished in the traditional classroom can be done electronically. Moreover, it can in some respects be done better, and some things can likely be done that go beyond what can occur in traditional instruction. In the future, or even now, the idea of a course can be superseded in favor of multidirectional, multidimensional, multidisciplinary formats of study and instruction. There are no known limits to the self-modifying capabilities of the technological medium. What I describe here is tied to a fleeting present. A short time from now, all that is now may be obsolete.

The Technological Bluff and the Technological Moral Vision

Whenever we are presented with technological advance, vision is directed only toward what more can be accomplished by the new approach and how whatever remains can be made more efficient. What is sought is the “one best means.” Technology never looks back, except to verify its improvements. We forget what our standard once was because technology assures us that whatever we were attempting to accomplish can now be done better and whatever was good in it need not be abandoned; it can be transformed and improved. Any difficulties we may project are answered by invoking the “technological bluff”—the principle that nothing in principle stands in our way; we are working on it, and the solution is only a matter of time.2 The technological bluff urges us to keep the technological faith. An accompanying principle is that technology is essentially a tool, a way of doing something that we want to do. This principle of technology as tool overlooks the fact that once we absorb ourselves in the tool we lose any sense of how else to operate. Technological advance is irreversible; it brings its own necessity with it.

The online academic looks to the moral vision of hundreds of thousands of deprived persons worldwide who have now enrolled and can continue to enroll in online instruction. It is one fulfillment of the liberal academic dream of globalization. This moral vision was recently stated by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman:

Lord knows there’s a lot of bad news in the world today to get you down, but there is one big thing happening that leaves me incredibly hopeful about the future, and that is the budding revolution in global online higher education. Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty—by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.3

In a letter to the editor about Friedman’s column, H. Kim Bottomly, president of Wellesley College, elaborated on this great moral vision, putting it in terms of political correctness and globalization: “I envision women in Riyadh and Islamabad taking literature and economics courses alongside students in Kansas City and Anchorage engaged in discussions that are informed, impassioned and ultimately transformative—the kind of exchange that is the hallmark of a liberal arts education.”4

The ability to have conversation about ideas is indeed one of the hallmarks of a liberally educated person, but genuine conversation, like teaching, requires that it take place face-to-face, as a distinctively human event. Otherwise, it is just a process of abstractly passing views back and forth while looking at an image. Students engaged in classroom education may make friends generating from their common experience in the class, but an “Internet friendship” is a form of high nonsense—a relationship incapable of the philia upon which human friendships rest.

What Is Left Behind

Let us take stock of the conception of education that has been with us since the founding of the Academy, where Plato delivered the now lost lecture on the Good, and where, as traditionally reported, Diogenes of Sinope brought a plucked chicken into the classroom, saying, “Here is Plato’s man”—man having been defined in the Academy as a featherless biped, necessitating the addition of “having broad nails.”5 In the famous Seventh Letter, Plato says: “For this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself.”6 Plato is describing the special sophia he teaches, but what he says of it can just as well be said of actual teaching in general. The teacher must look for an epiphany to occur in which the students—or at least some students—suddenly see what it is to internalize knowledge as distinct from being trained and receiving the required information to be certified or receive academic credit.

The discovery on which Academy education was based is the idea that there are ideas—the Platonic eidē. As A.N. Whitehead wrote, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”7 What is true of philosophy is also true of education. Education, no matter what the subject matter, is always about ideas. Facts are facts only in relation to ideas. Ideas are the basis of culture, what is captured in the meaning of the Greek term paideia or the German word Bildung—the acquisition of culture through education. “Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling,” wrote Whitehead in The Aims of Education. “Scraps of information have nothing to do with it. A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth.”8 Information, whether in scraps or in complete collections, is not the subject, not even the partial subject of education. Whitehead said further: “Style, in its finest sense, is the last acquirement of the educated mind; it is also the most useful. It pervades the whole being.” It is “the ultimate morality of mind….With style you attain your end and nothing but your end.”9

To the extent that some things must be learned in a rote fashion—grammar, vocabulary, formulas, the table of elements, anatomical labels, historical dates, genealogies of gods, plotlines of novels—these are simply information if approached separately from theoria, the theater of thought in which they play a role. Only the living presence of a teacher, whose style of thought incorporates such essentials of a subject matter, can convey the value of what otherwise would seem to be mere information. What is learned by rote was at one time the product of thought, and it is this sense of thought that lies within such things that must be learned as the things themselves are mastered and memorized.

The Lecture

What is missing from online instruction is not the logical presentation of materials; it is their rhetorical presentation. As Aristotle says at the beginning of the Rhetoric, rhetoric and dialectic stand to each other as strophe to antistrophe.10 Classroom teaching is a form of oration. Ars oratoria combines ratio, or the giving of an account, laying out the points of an issue, with narratio, or relating things together as a story, giving ideas a plot-like presentation. There are two models of classroom teaching—the lecture and the discussion. Teaching can alternate between these two forms, allowing the teacher to speak to the students and asking them to speak to the teacher and to one another under the teacher’s moderation. What the teacher and the students have in common is their attachment to the subject matter. They are a community of scholars.

Karl Jaspers said in The Idea of the University: “Lectures have held preeminence in teaching for ages. They present the materials to be learned in such a way that the listener can visualize how and for what reasons they were collected. Bare facts can be gathered from books. In lectures the listener takes notes and is compelled to think about the lecture.”11 The lecture is a live performance of a person thinking; the student, by taking notes, thinks with the lecture. In the living classroom, unlike the video lecture, no two lectures are ever the same. Any lecture adapts to the mood, the tonality of the class that day.

Teachers, in presenting their thoughts, are at the same time revealing themselves as examples of the life of the mind. The students may first absorb this style mimetically, but over time cultivate an intellectual life of their own.

The Discussion

The second model of teaching is discussion, which has its origin in the Socratic elenchos—the cross-examination of ideas between persons committed to inquiry and the pursuit of truth through raising questions and searching for their answers. The Socratic question is always the obvious one. It is simple and direct, unpretentious and genuine. The lecture has this dialogue within its monologue, but in discussion the dialogue comes forth and the monologue is placed in the background.

Socratic teaching requires much time and skill on the part of the teacher to move the exchange forward in a focused manner. It is most effective as a method of tutorial between a teacher and one or two students. The difficulties of enacting it effectively are multiplied in a classroom. One thing is clear: it cannot be accomplished online. Socratic instruction requires persons to be wholly and actually present to each other, as pictured in the Socratic-Platonic dialogues. The emotions, bodily actions and reactions, tones of speech, must all be present to the interlocutors for the elenchos to have life.

The lecture is not a superior form of teaching to the discussion, nor is the discussion superior to the lecture. Both seem to be essential components. This may be why Plato lectured inside the Academy and also produced dialogues to be read outside. Ideal teaching may employ the advantages of both types of teaching, lecture and discussion. Organizing students into groups to pursue projects and the many variations thereon is no substitute for the direct teacher-student relationship, in which teachers teach and students learn from them and carry their learning experience into their self-development as cultivated thinkers in the style of educated persons.

The thinking behind electronic education and electronically supplemented instruction is active rather than passive, that is, it seeks repeatedly to engage the student in the absorption of bits of information and in providing continual responses and checks on what is absorbed. In such a process the student is trained to acquire information but is not educated. Although in principle this approach does not prohibit the student from reading, and reading assignments may be included, it does not promote the reading of great books. Great books are not information. They cannot be grasped in bits but must be read as a whole. They allow readers to enter into worlds of images and ideas that take readers out of themselves and foster the art of contemplation, the arts of intellectual and aesthetic meditation.

The Cultivation of Language

The Renaissance Italian humanist Leonardo Bruni makes this point clear in his views on the study of literature. In order to acquire excellence of mind, “It is necessary to read and comprehend a great deal, and to bestow great pains on the philosophers, the poets, the orators and historians and all the other writers. For thus comes that full and sufficient knowledge we need to appear eloquent, well-rounded, refined, and widely cultivated.” Bruni continues: “Needed too is a well-developed and respectable literary skill of our own. For the two together reinforce each other and are mutually beneficial,” and concludes, “Literary skill without knowledge is useless and sterile; and knowledge, however extensive, fades into the shadows without the glorious lamp of literature.”12 Bruni claims that the intellect must be doubly educated in knowledge and in letters and the key to this is reading the works of the greatest minds of the ancients and the moderns. Such reading teaches eloquence. Eloquence cannot be learned via electronic media.

On the last day of his life, Socrates said to Crito: “To express oneself badly is not only faulty as far as language goes, but does some harm to the soul.”13 Cicero comments that, according to Socrates and in accord with his own view, “the disposition of a man’s soul indicates the man: the man indicates his speech: his speech indicates his actions: his actions indicate his life.”14 To this Boethius adds: “Men’s minds are obviously such that when they lose true opinions they have to take up false ones, and then a fog arises from these false ideas, which obscures that true vision.”15

When written language takes the form of Internet communication, of “texting” and “blogging,” spoken language does also. The music that is inherent in human speech and language becomes the monotone of the technical and thought becomes streamlined and simple, completely without spirit.

The Economics of Technology

Ellul makes the distinction between “the technical operation” and “the technical phenomenon.”16 The technical operation is essentially tool use as shared by both traditional and technological forms of society. A tool is essentially an extension of the body or the mind that serves to accomplish a specific type of task. Body and mind have their own realities that define the nature and use of the tool, but the tool in no sense defines the reality that makes and uses it. The technological society comes into existence when the technical operation is transformed into a phenomenon, when technique becomes a way of thinking and being. A specific technical operation remains a way to get things done. But once we begin to ask two questions of it, it is no longer simply a way of completing a specific task. We ask: How can it be improved? And how can it be expanded and applied elsewhere, perhaps in a new form? Now technique has become a way of thinking, a way of conceiving our actions within the world, and finally a way of conceiving ourselves as, essentially, technicians.

We constantly enlist ourselves to make progress, to improve and expand whatever we are doing, including human education, and it, like all else, must be reified by the medium of electronic formation and communication. Once we ourselves are educated or trained in this manner, it will be the manner in which we train the next generation. Any of the former ways of acting and thinking are soon forgotten, as if they never existed.

Classroom education must be a live process for the same reason that there is no such thing as an online courtroom trial. The law requires that a trial be a live process between judge and jury, accused and accuser, attorneys and witnesses. Not only logic but rhetoric is required for justice. Rhetoric responds to the whole person, the whole situation. The law and education are the companions of civilization, for without law there is no society and without education what is achieved in society as knowledge is not passed from one generation to another. How this is done makes all the difference.

Teachers teach to an audience. What is said in a class and how it is said is constantly adjusted to the week in the term and the sense of the day, as mentioned above. No two class sessions are the same. The teacher draws on humor, metaphor, irony, and repetition as the occasion requires and as rapport varies. Students react or fail to react to points and the teacher responds and adjusts how he says what is to be said.

Online education is not oration. Online education is the passing out of information, like passing out goods in a commissary. Online students are not treated as students and cannot be. They are clients, consumers of information, of a commodity of knowledge available worldwide. In this online commodity one size fits all. Many enroll in the enthusiasm of pursuing an interest, but not so many finish or even go very far, as the press of other commitments allows one to put off the work. Courses require the techniques pioneered by Sesame Street to attempt to hold the client’s interest. The need to hold attention is why online courses are so highly produced, using the techniques of television programming.

Oscar Wilde said that all bad poetry is sincere. Online education is bad education. Its sincerity rests on its morality: that it overcomes the evils of classroom education, the elitism of teaching a small number of students, and makes the same or better education available to all in the world who are waiting to learn. The administrator sees the opportunity implicit in worldwide, free online courses. The unstated or not too prominently stated opportunity is that persons taking free online courses for no academic credit may decide to go a step further and enroll in online courses for credit. For a relatively small investment of time, effort, and funds a large amount of money in fees and tuition can be collected and continue to be collected as the course is updated and reoffered.

In a letter to the editor responding to Friedman’s Times article, Dickinson College president William G. Durden recognizes well the economics of institutions of higher learning entering into online instruction. Citing an example mentioned by Friedman, Durden states: “[A]n M.I.T. degree will remain as it is today—‘connected with bricks and mortar’….Online courses represent auxiliary income to support bricks and mortar and to increase brand recognition globally. New wine for an old bottle.”17 The result, as Durden correctly predicts, is that a traditionally taught degree will become even more desirable. It will represent a real education, standing outside the economics of online income, and will likely be more elite and more expensive. Those in the middle and upper social and economic classes will not be hoodwinked into thinking that an online education is anything more than it is—an extended series of training programs surrounded by stupendous claims of offering an education to everyone.


What accounts for the fascination with online instruction, whether as online courses or as part of classroom instruction? What accounts for the feeling that more technology is always desirable, if not required? The impetus to do things online, to post materials online, to deal with students electronically, is rooted in more than simply the aim of better teaching tools. These things are spoken of as if their value is obvious, even as if they were part of a natural order. The average person is fascinated by performance. Electronic communication is nothing but performance, a medium that places everything on the same level.

In Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco defines and explores the phenomenon of the “completely fake.”18 What he finds in his travels across the United States is a practice of making reproductions of originals—which are in themselves more fascinating than the originals. They produce in the viewer or participant a satisfaction that does not involve comparing the reproduction, the “fake,” with the original. A prime example, for Eco, is the reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” on display in the Forest Lawn-Glendale cemetery in metropolitan Los Angeles. Unlike a reproduction in the traditional sense, it does not seem to require any attention to the real “Last Supper” to give it its value. It is a hyperreality that is grounded in the sense of “more.” It is more than the original; it is a real fake, a gimmick, complete in itself. The real or absolute fake is a phenomenon of the technological world, in which anything is possible, anything can be made, any desire can be fulfilled by following the principle of “more.” More takes us toward a situation of “fullness,” of horror vacui. The Los Angeles “Last Supper” is more than that in Milan. This concept of the hyperreal explains the motive that underlies the drive toward online education.


What can we conclude concerning the intrusion of online instruction and its accompanying electronic paraphernalia into a system of teaching and learning that has served to educate humanity for centuries, from the ancient academies and schools to the trivium and quadrivium to the studia humanitatis to the modern curricula of the liberal arts and sciences? First, we can conclude that nothing I say here in criticism will inhibit even for a moment the support and participation in electronic instruction of most academics or university administrators. Such technological advance is irreversible and its endorsement by the professors is and will continue to be complete. They will find ways of affirming its value and believing that nothing is lost. Technology is irresistible.

Second, online instruction, no matter how it is developed and no matter what apologetics are mustered in its support, can never be more than a means to convey information because it is in principle nothing more than this. Technical in form, it is technical in result. The cultivation of the mind, the education of the whole person, the formation of the human spirit through the letters of the ancients and the sciences of the moderns is not reachable online. It is reachable only by direct and sustained human contact between teacher and student. Human education is the education of a self actually present to other selves, not present as images no more real than the images on the wall of Plato’s cave. It requires language, that necessary human capability that when written or spoken can take its own form, not one adjusted to the shadows of words conveyed in electronic exchange.

Third, what of using online means as a supplement to classroom teaching and learning? As explained above, no learning is rote learning, and no teaching is simply offloading of information. The use of online components in classroom teaching is a pretense at conducting education.

Regarding the joining of online instruction with classroom teaching, the claim most frequently made is that a certain amount of any class session involves conveying information, which can be done online, thus freeing up more class time for discussion and further exploration of subject matter. This concept of teaching is mistaken. Any details that may appear to be simply information are not. All particulars are part of a whole and are properly brought forth by the teacher. The True is the whole and everything within it has a determinate place in the ars oratoria that govern the class session. Another way to put this is the principle, well-known in theory of knowledge, that all facts are facts only in regard to some theory. Even more, that there are facts is itself a theory of experience. The facts present in any subject matter need to appear for the student as part of the comprehension of the theory or whole of which they are a part. No time is saved and nothing is gained intellectually by making the student believe otherwise.

Online instruction, whether the basis of a course or a supplement to traditional classroom teaching, is a form of educational management, with students as consumers who, immersed in an electronic sense of the world, find themselves comfortable with anything reduced to a technological format. Online instruction in any form mistakes the pointing finger for the moon.

Finally, let me emphasize that this is not an argument against technology; it is only an acknowledgment of what technology is. It is also not an argument against the use of computers as the means of keeping records, administering, and otherwise conducting the business of the modern university. It is an argument against online instruction as a basis or partial basis of education.

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