Published: May 29, 2002

Web-Based Learning: But the Prom Will Not Be Webcast

By Alan Warhaftig


Educators may be pillars of the community, but their discourse is as mercurial as Paris fashion. Desperate to find a magic bullet to cure education's woes, many are willing to embrace new curricula and unproven pedagogies, believing that anything different must necessarily be good. Educators' current fascination with technology is a vivid example.

There was a time, not long ago, when advocates of educational technology gushed about the prospect of schoolchildren exchanging e-mails with world-class experts on everything. The idea was exciting, even if these world-class experts were hard-pressed to find time to reply to e-mails from each other, let alone from tens of millions of American schoolchildren. Eventually, that rosy vision receded into the distance.

Today, proponents of technology deride traditional schools as limited by a calendar determined by the requirements of agriculture and a delivery system that mimics factories from the turn of the previous century. From this critique, which rings true with most educators, they leap to the conclusion that these limitations render traditional schools wholly inadequate to prepare students for the information age—as if the future no longer required graduates to read, think, write, and solve problems using mathematics, at least not if they developed these abilities using paper and pencil. This parallels the insistence, by some "new economy" market analysts at the height of the dot-com frenzy, that traditional bases for valuing companies were no longer relevant.

As an alternative, technology advocates envision "anytime, anyplace" learning customized to the needs of the individual learner. Grounded in constructivist pedagogy, in which teachers are guides rather than the primary purveyors of content, they see technology enabling a real-time dynamic between assessment and curriculum. Assessment would not have to wait for teachers to grade papers, and the next curricular step would be determined individually, based on computer-graded assessment. Reports, calibrated to state standards, would be available to parents via the Internet on a 24-7 basis. While the experienced teacher's eyebrows rise at the faith being invested in multiple-choice assessment—arguably already too prominent in standardized tests such as the Stanford Achievement Test, 9th Edition—this educational equivalent of the automated battlefield appears a neat little package to those who have never taught or who have forgotten how they themselves became educated.

The exemplar of "anytime, anyplace" learning is online coursework to enrich traditional schooling. In fact, the potential of online education is intriguing, even if current technology and course design are primitive. Imagine students in a remote town with a high school too small to offer Advanced Placement courses in subjects that fascinate them. For such students, or for students whose health renders them housebound, online courses can do for education what the Sears catalogue did for shopping: Place isolated learners on a level playing field with their counterparts at elite urban and suburban schools.

These sensible uses, however, are not a large enough market to sustain businesses that provide online education; therefore, a far grander notion—of cyber schools as alternatives to traditional schools—is being actively promoted by powerful, politically connected entrepreneurs, including former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. Their goal, to access public funds to pay cyber school tuition, dovetails nicely with the agendas of charter schools, the voucher and home schooling movements, and school districts that regard online schooling as providing less expensive alternatives to building enough "brick and mortar" schools to accommodate population growth.

Money aside, before society rushes headlong into cyber schools, we must consider whether this is the education we want for children. In 2002, no serious educator can claim that online instruction is of the same quality as competent face-to-face instruction. Cyber schooling is rarely suggested for elementary and middle school students, as even its most enthusiastic promoters would agree that young children need the social experiences of a real classroom. Developmental concerns, however, do not end with the 8th grade; indeed, development enters an especially dangerous phase as adolescents are attracted to emotional and behavioral extremes just as their potential to do harm reaches new heights. Shakespeare had it right in Sonnet 18: "Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May."

The purpose of high school education is not merely to implant information and develop skills. The young people I teach are becoming aware that there is a world beyond their neighborhood, and that they are part of a rich and complex sequence of events that began long before they were born and which will have implications far into the future. This understanding is not easy to acquire, and breakthroughs in understanding can engender confusion and even pain.

Education is a human enterprise, and while revelations certainly occur while walking on the beach or sitting at a computer, the bulk of academic understanding is best acquired in a classroom—in a community of fellow learners. Students also learn essential life skills in a classroom, including how to interpret meaning—not just in words, but also in voices, eyes, and body language. Shy children emerge from their shells, and aggressive children acquire gentleness and polish. High school can be a dreadful milieu, but parrying insults and ignoring stupidity are useful preparation for adulthood, while fleeing traditional schools may only postpone problems and deny opportunities to develop resilience.

Virtual community has value, but only for those who have learned to be members of real communities. A cyber prom is no substitute for social experiences that were formative in previous generations, and cultural consequences are not factored into the business models of cyber entrepreneurs. Real community has a normative effect on those who tend to extremes: Those who veer too far from accepted norms must moderate their views and behavior if they want others to associate with them. Virtual communities do not encourage moderation in the same way. The Columbine High School shooters found validation for their extreme views in the virtual world. The anonymity of chat rooms and discussion groups encourages extreme expression; for most, this constitutes harmless venting or a tasteless exercise of free speech, but unstable participants can be egged on, and sometimes go tragically over the edge.

As I teach, I determine the next step from the reactions of my students. Did they understand what I just said? Why is there a question in Clara's eyes, while John seems to have gotten it? In my experience, John was more likely to have been confused by what I said, and Clara is one of my most perceptive students. Is Clara's question directly related to the material, or has the material activated emotions from another part of her life? (I know that she's in therapy, though she doesn't know that I know—and she didn't look her normal self when she walked into the room.) Good teachers know their students very well and adjust their teaching to achieve optimal results.

Good teachers also thrive on daily, face-to-face contact with students, even if working conditions are far from ideal. In my district, the average high school teacher has between 120 and 200 students. If I could earn comparable pay and benefits to teach 50 students online, and if wearing sweatpants to work were a high priority, I might be tempted. Unfortunately, online education would be prohibitively expensive if each teacher (paid at least $60,000 per year, including benefits) taught only 50 students. If the online teacher had to teach 120 to 200 students, the job would be nearly unbearable—all of the work (more, actually) and a fraction of the human contact, none of it face to face.

As a learning medium, online education is flawed. Designers of online courses labor to create a simulacrum of community, but community has more dimensions than software can emulate, so many participants find they are not engaged and conclude that online learning is not for them. As a substitute for face-to-face discussion, asynchronous threads appear to be inherently less efficient. The primary way to participate in an online class is to post messages. If a student logs on to a class with 30 participants, a large number of messages are likely to have been posted since he or she last logged on. If the fifth message prompts agreement, the options are to either immediately post a response or continue to read messages before coming back to that fifth message. It is far easier to reply immediately. Unfortunately, by the time the student has read the rest of the messages, there might be many messages that echo the same sentiment but add little substance. This duplication does not occur in face-to-face discussions, because everyone in a room can readily assess—from nodding heads—whether or not there is agreement.

The rush to bring technology to education is motivated more by commerce than evidence of educational value. Human beings were learning for many millennia before computers and the Internet, and it would be shortsighted to abandon this wealth of experience in favor of the unproven potential of a combination of technologies that has been available to schools for only about five years. The result will be a colossally expensive failure if pilot programs and properly designed research do not precede broad implementation.

If society is obligated to educate children, it must provide sufficient schools and teachers. The schools need to be clean, safe environments that welcome young people—not drive them to home schooling or cyberspace. The teachers need to be caring adults able to passionately convey both their subjects and the value of becoming an educated person. Only after this commitment has begun to be fulfilled—and technology and course design advance significantly—will cyber schooling find its proper place in the repertoire of educational options.

Alan Warhaftig is a national-board-certified high school English teacher at the Fairfax Magnet Center for Visual Arts in Los Angeles. He co-founded the Music for Educators program for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and served as the coordinator of Learning in the Real World, a nonprofit clearinghouse on technology in education and childhood. His e-mail address is

Vol. 21, Issue 38, Pages 34-48