Meadville Tribune

June 3, 2014

Reality or virtuality? Classroom learning trumps online education

By James R. Roha
Meadville Tribune

— I graduated from an unnamed liberal arts college founded in 1815 and located in a small city in northwest Pennsylvania. This past weekend was Alumni Weekend, and this year happened to mark an unspecified milestone year for our class. Now when it comes to registering for events and paying money, I tend to procrastinate a bit. But thanks to the Internet, I was able to register at the very last minute and make the payment online. It was very convenient, and a great time was had by all.

Technology makes life much easier in many ways. You can do your banking and make investments online. You can pay bills and make purchases electronically. I have two or three professional licenses with continuing education requirements, and I am now able to purchase the courses; complete the education requirements; print my certificates; and renew my licenses, all online.

Many legitimate colleges and universities offer online courses with academic credit. Students can complete much of their educational requirements from the comfort of home, and at times convenient to their schedules. At the high school level, charter schools enable students from one part of the state to complete their graduation requirements through schools located elsewhere. But I often wonder something: with the pervasiveness of electronic educational credentials, is it possible that our students are missing out on something?

While I am the son of a Republican businessman, my freshman roommate was a Democrat and a card-carrying construction union member. That made for some interesting political discussions. Half the residents on our floor smoked cigarettes; the rest of us did not. Today the nonsmokers would file a civil rights suit. Back in those days, we all learned to accommodate each other. None of us had ever heard of the term “obsessive compulsive disorder” until we lived on the same floor as someone who suffered from it. Living on campus was an education in and of itself. Direct experience taught us that others have customs and beliefs different from our own.

Being in a brick-and-mortar classroom with other students presents the opportunity for intellectual competition. You are pitting your mind against the minds of your classmates, and intellectual growth is the result. You run faster or work out harder when you have someone accompanying you, nipping at your heels.

Some advocates believe that programmed learning and standardized tests constitute an education. As long as a student is able to regurgitate the correct answers, that student has “learned.” If you ascribe to that theory, you believe that someone can look at a photograph of a rose and learn that it is a beautiful flower.  

Ah, but if you walk into a garden and hold it in your hands, you can see its beauty firsthand. You can smell its fragrance. You can feel the silkiness of its petals. And you might endure a bit of pain if your finger is pierced by one of its thorns. Which is the more comprehensive learning experience?

At our class get-togethers, I assumed the role of an observer for a moment. Scanning the room, I looked at the diverse backgrounds and experiences represented by my classmates, and I reflected that, if online education had been the norm in my youth, I would never have known these dozens, even hundreds of people. Their experiences would not be a part of mine. I would never have had the opportunity to compete with them, mind to mind; personality to personality. I would not have challenged their beliefs, nor would they have challenged mine. And I realize that my life experience would be impoverished as a result.

Perhaps my views are a bit dated, but I still believe that an actual rose is superior to a picture of a rose. A friend at my side will trump a thousand virtual friends online. I will run faster and lift more weights when someone is accompanying me, spurring me to reach new limits. And my learning will be enhanced when my mentors and colleagues force me to think critically and analytically, rather than answering multiple choice questions on a computer screen.

Roha is a former Meadville city councilman. He can be contacted at