The Future of Online Education (Part III): Life Outside the Machine


RussellBy Rich Russell

I had a student in a traditional class last semester (let’s call him “Anthony”) who was a bit of a Holden Caulfield. (I don’t think he’d mind my saying that.) He got along well with his peers, but he harbored a healthy amount of skepticism about the modern world. At first obsessed with Facebook, “friending” his fellow classmates within minutes of meeting them (“I think you just meet new people so you can collect them on Facebook,” I once said), he one day announced that he was abjuring the Zuckerberg realm: he had quit Facebook. (Or, at least, he had deactivated his account. Facebook is harder to quit than one might imagine. Deactiving one’s account just places your profile into a temporary purgatory until you log in again. And you will –– you will log in again.) When asked why he had committed what some call “social networking suicide,” Anthony mumbled something about phonies and the pettiness of it all. I said he should get a red hunting cap. He laughed.

We’ve since become friends on Facebook.

In the E.M. Forster story I’ve been referencing, Kuno escapes from the Machine into the outside world. For the first time in his life, he breathes real air (not artificial air provided by the Machine) and feels the warm sun and the grass. But, like Anthony, Kuno is pulled back into the Machine. When he wakes up in his room (in the Machine), he says, “I was surrounded by artificial air, artificial light, artificial peace, and my friends were calling to me down speaking-tubes to know whether I had come across any new ideas lately” –– a return to the social network.

We have all been wrestling with this balance, between the Machine and ourselves: where does one end and the other begin? (Where should it?) William Powers is the latest author to offer a manual for negotiating the digital age, suggesting that we have rooms in our houses or entire weekends free from digital technology. But like Powers seems to be, I am more fascinated by the college students who turn reluctant, part-time apostates to the technology than I am by fellow members of Generations X and Y, who might sometimes bemoan their Blackberries. After all, as I’ve mentioned before: I remember a time before all this [waving arms about to indicate Internet]. In the NewsHour interview, Powers notes, “One of the first talks I gave about the book [Hamlet’s Blackberry] was in Los Angeles to a fairly large audience, people of many different ages. And after the speech, the people who came up to me and really buttonholed me most urgently […] tended to be younger people. And a few of them really had tears in their eyes and said, you know, I have never –– I didn’t even know this [disconnecting] was an option.”

It has become a sin to be unavailable, a crime which I, myself, admit to reproaching online students for. If students sign up to take an online class with me and then experience connection problems or tell me they couldn’t log in for the first few weeks of the semester because they had forgotten their Blackboard password, I offer little sympathy. (“Get thee to a library! Or to a nunnery, be there WiFi! Have words, words, words with the Online Help Desk!!”) It seems reasonable. For this is what we expect: those of us who teach and learn online. We have to trust that the Machine will abide, even with its defects.

Forster: “Time passed, and they resented the defects no longer. The defects had not been remedied, but the human tissues in that latter day had become so subservient that they readily adapted to every caprice of the Machine.”

I gave my Composition II students last spring (and again online this past fall) an article from Harper’s about how cell phones and wireless networks may be killing us. They looked at me with an expression of momentary shock, then realizing the next minute, “But, even if so –– so what?

Next time: “The Future of Online Education (Part IV): Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Machine”

About the Teacher in Pajamas: Rich Russell received a B.A. in English from New York University, an M.S. in Teaching from The New School, and an M.A. in English from University College London. He currently teaches composition, literature, and creative writing classes (both online and in person) at Atlantic Cape Community College and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He received the Adjunct Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence from Atlantic Cape in 2010.

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