A Sentimental Education

Americans are most sentimental about two things: children and small towns. You’d think, then, that we’d protect them as carefully as the French protect baguettes and cheese. Not even close. Our education system is a shambles, we don’t have universal health care, even for children, and we long ago destroyed the agricultural system that underwrote the iconic Midwestern small town. Who needs enemies when we’ve got sentimentality like this?

In online education, which is so far a largely adult realm, this sentimentality revolves– encrusts?– the idea of community, symbolically linked to that small-town ideal in which everyone knows their neighbor and everyone looks out for one another. Crime rates are low, teenagers don’t have sex, the church is full on Sundays, mom’s in the kitchen and dad’s at work. What’s missing from these ideas of online community, in other words, is the real world, full of conflict and contention and change.

What’s fascinating, then, about Computer World’s report on the Career Education Corporation’s award winning Virtual Campus (“Online learning meets online community”) is it’s emphasis on the physical infrastructure rather than the relationships among people. I suppose that this might simply reflect the natural bias of the source, but I think the danger of sentimentality is very real, maybe especially in online education, which has an uphill battle to fight against dehumanization.

The central trope here is the idea of student experience, usually described in an active voice: “The resulting Virtual Campus lets students attend … visit … meet … access … and participate…” It’s always interesting the way these descriptions minimize the role of teachers and staff; there’s no parallel paragraph on what the software allows them to do. If this is a community, it’s one in which the servants are expected to be as invisible as they are efficient.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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