10 Things Fossilized by Online Education

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In the age of online education, the icons of the old world — roughly 1989 and earlier — are no longer sacred. Where we used to have dusty chalkboards, corded phones, bulky stereo systems, and cable television, we now have projectors, smart phones, Bluetooth speakers, and streaming video. The human mind has even adapted to the changing climate. We used to have patience, memory, and the ability to spell, but now we have frenetic multitasking, distraction, and spell check. In this new paradigm, advances in online education boldly trample old technologies, leaving old learning techniques underfoot, fossilizing them by way of neglect and change. In this new environment, long-loved traditions must change or die, including standardized testing, in-class hours, and even lectures.

The ten educational fixtures memorialized below once adorned classrooms across the country. But now they are pressed to the point of extinction — fossilized, or nearly so, by the blanketing influence of online education.

1. Correspondence Courses

The forerunner to online education was a mail-order option called “Correspondence Courses.” These classes evolved over the years using postal mail, telephone calls, radio, vinyl records, audio tapes, video tapes, and DVDs, together with written and mail-in assignments so students could interact with the same core content that resident students had in the classroom. The obvious problem with correspondence courses was that they were entirely self-directed and horribly lonesome. It was impossible to monitor student progress with any efficiency. It wasn’t as though your professor could catch your mistakes before they became habits. And this setup lacked the mutual support of a class of peers. Online education replaced this model entirely, fully subsuming the market for correspondence courses by using digital technology to extend the classroom globally — through live video, real-time conferencing, and direct communication with teachers and student peers. One could argue that online education is the latest incarnation of correspondence course, but since online students don’t really correspond through postal mail, and since they have the ability to earn fully-accredited college degrees, Image of an ad for a correspondence course and because online education is fast becoming the industry standard for higher education, it seems the online option is a class beyond anything that correspondence courses ever achieved.

2. VCRs

The video cassette recorder (VCR) was already declining before the internet took off. Early digital recording options such as LaserDiscs and MiniDiscs never caught on, but DVDs (Digital Video Discs) were a game changer. They achieved what MiniDiscs and LaserDiscs could not. They offered a CD-sized video platform that occupied little space, had no moving parts, and worked like a compact disc. At that point, the internet was the hammer that drove the nail into the VCR’s coffin. YouTube videos, streaming video, and video conferencing eroded any value left in the VHS cassette. And thanks to innovation, you can now get nearly any video, anytime, anywhere without ever having to rewind a tape.

3. TV Trolleys

Image of a TV trolley cart
The TV trolley was a source of excitement for students of the late twentieth century.

Despite the thrill it created when wheeled into place before us, the TV trolley wasn’t well-suited to survive the evolution of the modern classroom. New TVs are flat-screen, lightweight, and are better suited for wall-mounting than pushcart trucking. And as opposed to the old VCR players that connected to classroom televisions through a series of dangling wires, DVD or Blu-Ray players are more often than not built directly into classroom televisions or projectors. Streaming video also now makes it possible for each student to download or link to video content on a personal device.

All of this means that the TV trolley is now a method of conveyance without a purpose.

4. Pen Pals

Image: Vegan Pen Pals
Because pen pals drink Euro-coffee with their biscuits. Picture Courtesy of Vegan Pen Pals Project

Letter writing is a lost art these days. I’ve never been good at it, and since the internet has taken shape, I’ve only gotten worse at it. Just ask my Mom. On second thought, don’t ask my mom. The notion of a “pen pal” is old-fashioned, like family night gathered around radio broadcasts. Before the days of the internet, it was considered innovative to teach kids grammar, penmanship, and world culture by way of pen pals. Now, that’s pretty much a giant, blinking “stranger danger” sign. People typically don’t communicate through two-way handwriting with unsolicited strangers across the globe — not on purpose at least. That’s how spammers, stalkers, and pushy salesmen work. Instead, we seek conversations through social media, text messaging, email, YouTube videos, and blogs. That’s how we send out signals into space. When the world talks back — through the comments, a discussion board, or a social media thread — we have the benefits of a pen pal without the wait-time or cost of postage.

5. Civil Discourse

Image of Calvin and Susie Derkins, arguing, fighting
Opening statements at the 2016 Presidential Debate

It’s probably overstating things to say that civil discourse is dead. However, in many ways, the internet has undermined healthy civil discourse. “Fake news” can engender skepticism about previously trusted sites. We can dialogue with people we’ve never met in person, and for whom we have no relational context demanding civility. Plus, people can be anonymous, masking their true identity, so they can say whatever vile and hate-filled rubbish they want. The speed and spread of internet discourse has also pioneered a whole new degree of virulent alarmism, where any politically incorrect statement or unpopular opinion, regardless of context, can be judged “Guilty!,” incurring swift consequences before the convicted might mount a defense. The internet has made it infinitely easier both to communicate and miscommunicate. All of this is in lieu of the patient pro-and-con debate over difficult issues. Online, people can pick and choose which voices may speak through their media threads, effectively preselecting enclaves populated by agreeing peers, with no real need to seriously and patiently dialogue with people who disagree. You can see the effects of these insulated enclaves every time a comment or social media thread descends into trolling, insults, and name-calling. Now, no rule mandates that you or I must conform to the dominant incivility, but the gravitational pull is strong, and we need to push hard to resist it.

6. Chalkboards

Whiteboards, projectors, and computer screens have made chalkboards obsolete. We can write and draw on our laptops, and then beam our message to the whole class through the internet. And if all digital options fail, there are still markers and whiteboards. We can take a picture with our phones and save the image for the next cram session. Chalkboards were dinosaurs bound for extinction once we came up with cleaner, brighter options that don’t produce clouds of asthma-inducing chalk dust.

7. Encyclopedia Britannica [Print Edition]

Image of a set of encyclopedia books
The 2016 edition, only available in India and Southeast Asia because the “Britannica” in “Encyclopedia Britannica” stopped printing in 2010.

Librarians from around the world shed a silent tear over this one. The thirty-two-volume 2010 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica was the last print edition in the West of this world-renowned series. This epic tome once filled a sizable shelf in every respectable library (and house) in the English-speaking world. But now Encyclopedia Britannica just hosts a website, and you can pay a subscription fee if you want to access their collected wisdom. Bummer! Books are still better than websites. But it’s hard to argue with the logic. Print volumes cost too much money. The online edition is easily half the cost to produce. Online education can still employ the web version of these books, but you’ll have to deal with some outdated editions if you want the hardback copies.

8. Spelling

Image of a tattoo failureTo this day, I still have to use spellcheck whenever I try to write bourgeois. Fortunately, I rarely have to spell that word even though I’m a reasonably well-educated person who’s had to spell it a lot when I was in school. You’d think I would have learned how to spell this two dollar word by now. It’s not rocket science. But it’s hard to worry much about being a good speller when your smartphone keyboard autocorrects misspellings, and the computer spellcheck and Grammarly catch the rest. You have as much chance at becoming a good speller in the internet era as you do of becoming a bowler by only bowling with bumpers.

9. Attention Span

If screen addiction is an epidemic, then the internet is the leading cause. Our cell phones, computers, and smart TVs have made these dazzling flat boxes a never-ending source of entertainment and information so that we don’t even blink like we used to. You might think we have better attention spans because we can binge watch TV shows, or stare at a video game for three hours at a time, but we’ve effectively ruined our attention span for boring things such as listening to a class lecture, studying notes, or reading a deep and complicated book for class. In the world of online education, we struggle through a veritable high-wire act, using the internet to access our class materials while fighting the inescapable temptation to detour into social media, video games, or email

10. Memorization

I was going to say something really important here, but I forgot. I must have gotten distracted by a pop-up box, advertisement, ping, bing, tweet, post, blinky light, or some other kind of push notification that demands I drop all my operating memory so I can see what it’s pointing to. I never had a great memory, but this skill has only gotten worse since I began using the internet all those years ago. Never mind that I’m getting old. I blame the internet. Online education doesn’t exactly make us forgetful, but it doesn’t help us discipline our memory either. We tend to forget the things that are already organized and easy to access for later reference. Why take the time to memorize something when you can look it up any time you want using Wikipedia, Google, Siri, or Alexa?

Obviously, online education has forever altered the landscape of learning for all students. But each student’s experience is unique. How has online education altered your experience as a student?

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