08/30/2011 09:22 am ET Updated Oct 30, 2011

Educating for Democracy: Is "On-line Learning" Learning?

In a recent interview on Democracy Now, Diane Ravitch, the noted educator, and Brian Jones, an education leader and teacher as well as the producer of a must-see movie, The Inconvenient Truth about Waiting for Superman discussed one of the more pressing issues facing education today: the use and abuse of "on-line learning." My question is: can a computer, no matter how cleverly programmed, replace the educational value of a live teacher?

I would consider myself a pioneer in my experiences with on-line learning since I was, as an undergraduate, part of a program to enhance my skills in conversational German through an "experimental television project" when I took the introductory German language course at Queens College-CUNY in the early 1960's. Although half the course was taught in a conventional classroom, the other half consisted of a television program in which students proficient in German performed little skits with our professor to get us to actually see how we could apply the language to everyday life situations. At the time, television was itself a novelty and "Sunrise Semester," begun several years before, which was programmed at 6:00 A.M. and gave college credit to those who took it, looked like it would revolutionize education. It didn't, nor did television programming in German conversation have the desired effect in my experience; after the novelty of the first few programs, most of us in the class found the lessons boring and would use the time for napping or keeping up our reading in other courses.

When I was a part-time instructor in my first year of teaching, which was at Bronx Community College in 1965, I taught a course in reading to students with learning difficulties. One of the innovations I was required to use was a "reading machine" that would enable students to read a text at their own pace. I thought it was a good idea but it never caught on to any degree that would have had an impact on measurably improving the reading skills on students who were reading below grade.

At one point, during my teaching career, I conducted a class in "distance learning" that I felt rather uncomfortable teaching since although there were students in the studio from which the class was broadcast, those who were taking the course from other sites, I felt, were somewhat cut off from direct contact with me.

Finally, a colleague and I developed a writing course which we called "Seeing and Writing" in which we used videos from a variety of sources including commercials, excerpts from MASH, MTV songs and the Nixon-Kennedy debates. We even gave presentations of our program at conferences. In this last experiment, I felt more confident that I was using media properly by having it as a supplement to my teaching rather than a substitute for it.

Unfortunately, it seems that if the direction of on-line learning is headed the way in which it appears to be, where "virtual learning" is going to be an accepted substitute for teaching as Governor Rick Scott recently mandated in Florida, there will be a true "revolution" in education: teacher less classrooms and, as a result, student less students.

Although I could agree that the judicious use of technology can prove useful in teaching, the bizarre notion that a machine, no matter how cleverly developed, can substitute for a live teacher is in keeping with the bizarre notion that standardized tests can of themselves accurately measure educational progress. It has always been the teacher whose intangible gifts inspire students who might not enter a classroom with a positive attitude toward learning but leave it with a hunger for knowledge, not another machine. The human element is becoming less and less visible in this age of robotized answering machines, internet dependency, and data-driven decisions on socially beneficial programs without raising students to believe that there is no passion, no complex thought, no intellectual and, yes, emotional connection between what a child learns and how he or she learns it. If on-line learning grows as quickly as it seems to be, and I am certain it will not be widely adopted in the privileged private schools because the parents of those students attending wouldn't stand for it, then the cynical dictum of the former Soviet Union will apply in public education as well: "We'll pretend they are being taught, and they will pretend to learn."