We all know that gas prices right now suck. They’ve sucked for about, oh, 7 years now. (I think 9/11 was the beginning of the end, but I could be mistaken.) Like everything else, higher education is being affected.

Or so the New York Times reports today (“High Cost of Driving Ignites Online Classes Boom”), citing numerous schools (although the vast majority of them seem to be community colleges, there are some 4-year institutions represented as well) who have seen dramatic increases – at least one over 100%! – in their online enrollment.

Now, I’ve taken a handful of online courses – one sociology, one business, one literature, possibly others that I’m not recalling offhand – and I have to say that I do not find that they are not conducive to authentic learning. I found myself fighting to stay with the material and eventually not even really studying it, opting instead to do a little bit of cramming for the exams (which were universally simple and required very little thinking about the material other than regurgitation of facts). So I think this is a bad trend for a number of reasons.

One good thing that can be said about the angle of the article (in my estimation) is that the choice is always weighed precariously with the advantages of on-campus learning, as in these quotes:

“The campus experience is good; I wouldn’t diminish that,” Ms. Jobe said. “But when you’re penny-pinching, online is a good alternative.”

Ms. Ozuna said she found online work more difficult than classroom study. “But I saved on the gasoline,” she said.

Mr. Gibbons…said he still preferred on-campus study, “but with the price of gas jumping up, I’ll probably be taking more courses online now.”

Perhaps the Times is just choosing not to rock the boat about traditional on-campus education. (If so, then I can understand why, even though singing the praises of virtual courses would probably delight some online ed proponents.) Maybe this angle is about demonstrating the ill effects of our nation’s dire energy situation (as I noted at the beginning of this entry). It might also be about considering that most readers of the Times are going to understand traditional courses as the default mode for higher education, with online courses now becoming more popular (even if out of necessity rather than pure popularity).

So the quotes mention the “campus experience” (which might refer to the direct, non-virtual interaction with classmates or just the “atmosphere” of a college campus, somewhere away from their home) and the relative difficulty of online work (which might be the extra work that some professors give so as not to let students slack off or the difficulty of self-discipline in getting the work done without a strict meeting schedule). I still think that the classroom itself suffers most in virtual classes.

First, by ‘classroom’ I don’t merely mean the room itself: I mean the group of students united for the purpose of acquiring skills and knowledge about a specific topic from a qualified instructor. I tend to think that classrooms like this are rather contrived communities, even more so than can occur in physical, non-virtual classrooms. When I am in a classroom with my peers, I generally have to at least recognize the presence of the people in the room, even (on the rare occasion) that I do not interact with them. (I’m fortunate to have small class sizes at my school.) With a virtual community, that need not happen, and if interaction occurs, it need not be meaningful even in the minute ways that occur in real life. If I take a virtual course, I can distance myself from my peers as though the class consisted of myself and the information (even the instructor can be superfluous! after all, a computer can relay information).

But I think the worst part is that this puts the student outside the reach of the teacher in such a way that the student cannot cultivate the habits of a good pupil. Teachers cannot demonstrate – better yet, model – the type of scholarship that is sought from higher education. The amount of direction that teachers are able to give through a virtual portal is minimal, and I think students suffer in the long run by disconnecting these scholarly virtues from their studies.

So the Times is right in framing this as a perhaps unfortunate turn of events caused by hard economic times; they certainly never claim any other reason for the increase. (Then again, that might undercut the point of the article – but I digress.)

I do have a small sample for my observations, so I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong and that virtual classrooms can – and do – exhibit the kind of substance that belongs uniquely to the higher ed classroom. But as much as I enjoy technology (as I write from my ScribeFire interface), I think education will not benefit when technology so dramatically alters the nature of the classroom, especially out of economic necessity rather than good theory and practice.