10/30/2014 12:12 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

Why I Am a Better Teacher Than a Computer

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Some years ago I heard a talk by astrophysicist Clifford Stoll. Now you would expect an astrophysicist to be a nerd's nerd, a real computer geek. Maybe he is, but he gave us a warning: Technology is no substitute for teaching. He asked us to think back to our school days. In the '50s and '60s, when people my age were in school, the primary educational technology was the film strip, which was generally of comically poor quality, ancient, and shown with an equally antiquated projector that was guaranteed to break down at least once every showing. Stoll asked us how many of these film strips we remember. I remember one, "Our Mister Sun," about solar science. That one was great, but the rest of the films they showed us are now blanks in my memory.

Then Stoll asked us whether we could recall any great teachers. Oh yeah. Some of those I will never forget, like Mr. Pierce (not his real name), who had the unenviable job of teaching 8th grade science. I lived for that class. At a time of life when you are clumsy, self-conscious, and making your first tentative forays away from childhood, I knew that for an hour each day I could escape into a world of beauty, majesty, and mystery -- the world of science. This was a world where there were deep, beautiful answers and the answers led to even deeper and more beautiful questions. One day we were studying gravity and its effects, and I asked Mr. Pierce "But what is gravity?" His answer was immediate and emphatic: "I don't know. I will leave that for you to find out." To this day, through a life in academe, that is the most brilliant answer to a student's question I have ever heard.

You remember the great teachers because they touched something inside you. They opened vistas and cleared new pathways. They made your world larger and richer. Can you get that same experience from a computer? Teaching, when it is done the way it should be, is a performance -- every bit as much as playing Hamlet. More so, in fact. An actor has to create a convincing character. The good teacher has to ad lib, improvise, read body language, deal with unanticipated questions, and change the pace, tone, or content depending on how the class is responding. In other words, the teacher has to interact with a class far more than an actor with an audience. It is therefore even more absurd to think that an online course can capture the experience of having a great teacher than to think that you could text a performance of Hamlet (I guess it would go like this: "2 B or not 2 B. OMG. LOL.").

The biological facts are clear: We primates are adapted for social interaction. Millions of years of evolution have equipped us for the subtleties, dangers, and rewards of face-to-face (FTF) communication. Personal computers have been around for about 35 years. In short, we have a million generations of preparation for interacting with members of our own species, and about one generation of preparation in interacting with a computer screen. Of course we learn a lot faster than we evolve, so even those of us in middle age have learned a little bit about using computers. However, though the mill of natural selection grinds slowly, it grinds exceedingly fine, and the effects of a million generations' evolution can be profound. One obvious yet profound truth about human beings is that we are adapted for FTF interaction. Anything else is a distant second best. Anything that comes between two people who are trying to communicate will unavoidably diminish the experience. You can learn more in five minutes talking FTF than you can in an hour of e-mailing back and forth. This is a deep truth that our world of tweeting and texting has forgotten, to the woeful impoverishment of our lives. FTF instruction has a track record going back to when Stone Age hunters taught tool making and animal tracking, and it has worked just fine.

In short, I am a much better teacher than a computer. I teach philosophy, history, and humanities, and I think I do so pretty well (with awards to back up the boast). I will not put my courses online. Ever. To do so would be lazy and irresponsible in the extreme, a repudiation of my basic values as a professional in higher education. It would also cheat the students who took such courses, because for their money they would be getting only an inferior imitation of a real course. Why then do administrators around the country put pressure on professors to replace their FTF courses with online ones? You get one guess. Yep -- money. An online curriculum is much cheaper than FTF courses. Also, some students like online courses because they can work on them at home in their pajamas between episodes of Naked and Afraid and America's got Talent. Tough. Some things worth doing are inconvenient, and coming to campus to take a class is worth it.

I am not a Luddite who would junk technology. On the contrary, I love my office computer so much that I am a bit sad when the university takes away my old one to give me a new one. Undoubtedly, computers have their uses and can do some things far better and inconceivably faster than humans. Indeed, some information is much better presented with computer graphics than anything I could possibly draw on a blackboard or explain verbally. So, I am not saying that computers cannot be used to help a good teacher to teach even better. I am saying that when you get to the point where you use technology not to enhance communication, but to substitute for real communication, then things are badly awry.