Online Writing Lab

Roane State Community College

The Faceless Teacher

by Dennis Gardner, Writing Tutor

The Internet is here to stay. Whether one lives in a backwoods shack or Silicon Valley, the potential of online communication cannot be ignored. In facing the twenty-first century, a fearless inventory of the role that the World Wide Web will play in global culture must be taken. This “phantom resource,” where web sites can shift and vanish like ghosts, should not lend itself to widespread application without careful examination of the specific functions it will be utilized to perform. The Internet is an entity without a master, and censure and discretion on the Web are left to the responsibility of the individual publisher. This means a student searching the vast fields of information that have flowered on-line may find pay dirt or fertilizer. Overzealous use of computers, even in innocence, to ease the burden of solid research in favor of convenience or for the sinister purpose of cutting costs, will reduce learning from a creative process to a point-and-click procedure, effectively diminishing students from social-learners to a cyber-tribe of hunters-and-gatherers relying on the ability of machines and the rote memorization of monitors’ displays.

The blank countenance of the computer screen, the faceless teacher, is a frightening prospect of education’s on-line future. Information is present as print, yet the medium of transference is missing. The student may be receptive and the information relevant; however, learning takes place not by passive observation but in a dynamic whirlwind of uncertainty and intent. A student enters the classroom to learn, and another human being must provide the nuance, the animation, and the conscious feedback--in short, the simple bioactivity--to stimulate a student’s mind. The professor provides another lifetime of experience to contrast with the student’s own personal reality. This interaction alone breaks the constraints of personal bias and helps to form a skill vital to critical thinking: objectivity. In a formal classroom, the informality of the social scene is left outside the door and a new discipline of rhetoric and discussion is acquired. The human teacher, while not infallible, can explain different solutions to a single problem, demonstrate objectivity and understanding, and illustrate alternate approaches to obstacles. The computer can calculate and display, but a teacher can calculate and devise.

Innovation is the ability to employ creative methods to solve a problem. How does one get it? Confronting problems directly and working through them is the only way. Education supplies not just raw data but also the strategies for dealing with that raw data, the template for forming this information into ideas by shaping it with innovation, and eventually the arena to use these weapons in challenging specific problems. Typing a command into a search engine or deleting an errant pornographic advertisement from a screen does not teach or even require critical thinking or innovation on the part of the student. Lessons hide in the process of learning--the cross-referencing, the questioning that is the lifeblood of the dialogue, and the discipline so important in the search for knowledge--not in the simple instant gratification in the click of a mouse. The ease of information acquisition provides the student with plenty of sources but hinders the development of a critical and flexible frame of reference to interpret this wealth of material. The computer can show but cannot teach. The student is left alone in a sea of information without a means of propulsion.

If the student seems the scapegoat, portrayed as dull-witted or lazy, this is unintentional. Though “virtual education” is only a keystroke away, and these are possibilities, not inevitabilities, the Internet is powerful, and with power comes the potential for abuse, by the teachers themselves as well as the students. As the Web gives pupils the option to decrease human involvement in their education, institutions may choose to use the Web as the primary classroom forum in the quest to save money. The equation E=mc2 can also be employed when examining a College or University’s financial strategy. Substitute “$” for “E,” manpower for “m,” and leave “c” as it is to represent “time” squared. The amount of time faculty members work multiplied by the size of the university’s staff equals money exiting from that institutions’ bank account. Time equals money, but money saved does not equal comparable education. It is vital that quality face-to-face education wins out over cost-cutting measures.

Machines work well with machines and people work best with other people. The human race is composed of a web of social animals. Human contact is essential for the development of quality minds. However, there are prospective students who, due to uncontrollable forces, find that a Web course is their only means of education. In this unfortunate circumstance, the concession must be given that any education at all is preferable to ignorance. But these on-line courses must be offered with caution and should not become the norm.

The web can be an aid to education in the way that a calculator is an aid to mathematics. With all of the speed and number crunching ability of a calculator, it would be highly difficult to learn algebra directly from this device. In the same respect, the World Wide Web is not a means to an end. It is not the magnificent force that is the human intellect. The mind is humanity’s greatest asset and its refinement is humanity’s greatest achievement. The evolution of such a device should not be left to anything less than its equal. The intangibles involved in the shaping and growth of human consciousness--the excitement of sharing knowledge, the drive to communicate in the most effective way, the value of having a person take a personal stake in the education of an individual-- are without parallel. In the complex chemistry of education, the computer is just a tool. The true energy and force is in the experiment itself; the teacher is the catalyst; and the student is the reaction.