“If you ask almost any adult about the impact of…school on his or her growth, he or she will not tell you about books or curriculum…or anything like that. The central memory is of the teacher, learning is meeting. ….We are learning slowly and late that education for competence without education as meeting promises us deadly values and scary options.” — Walter Brueggemann ((Quoted in Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark, HarperOne, 2006, page 219.))

I’ve been thinking about online education. University of Virginia is engaging the digital medium in a variety of ways to explore how it might enhance its educational impact. I note the existence of a number of for-profit providers of MBA degrees and spent some time last fall studying one of them closely. The business model of higher education is incredibly labor-intensive—shouldn’t it be possible to digitize some or all of the learning experience as a means of suppressing the relentless rise in costs? Clayton Christensen and co-authors in a new book, Disrupting Class, suggest that educators may have no choice: “disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns.” Easy access is nice. But here is a thought experiment: but what, if any, is the educational cost to the student of going completely online?

The answer is that one loses “high touch” learning and its benefits, such as the following:

  1. Growth in social intelligence and emotional intelligence. These used to be called “street smarts,” how to get along in a rough-and-tumble world. Heightened awareness about yourself and your interactions with others is difficult to develop online. You build this awareness best in direct interaction with others, guided by counsel, coaching, and helpful feedback. The high engagement classroom is an outstanding arena in which to develop street smarts. And recruiters and executives tell us social and emotional intelligence matter. So many MBAs are technically competent, but behave in ways that impair the valuable impact of their insights. Effectiveness begins with wide-angle awareness about yourself and others. Simple technical competence is not enough as the basis for a high-impact career.
  2. Learning to be present. At the start of each school year, I offer advice to the incoming class, a part of which is that “you must be present to win.” Being present is one of the casualties of modern life. We multi-task and are distracted from the things that matter; the urgent often crowds out the important. In-person classroom meetings teach one how to be present—it is more than simply attending. It is listening critically and speaking up respectfully at a moment of good impact. When one is present, one is taking in the whole scene: ideas, body language, and modes of expression. Most importantly, one is contributing oneself toward the success of the meeting. In an earlier posting (“ Reading and Reflecting on Information Technology”) I expressed my concern with the distractions of digital technology, with the filtering and selective engagement it affords, and with the narcissism that the electronic cocoon fosters. Actually meeting people busts the cocoon.
  3. Learning from others. Direct observation suggests that successful executives differ from the rest on at least one important dimension: they are quick learners, particularly from the people around them. How, then, do you learn to learn rapidly? A high-engagement environment like Darden’s can show how. Here, the students probably learn as much from each other as from the instructors. We structure it this way because it is excellent preparation for professional life. A lot of this learning occurs outside of the classroom (or “offline” in digital parlance): collaboration on projects, preparation for class, mentoring, tutoring, club activities, dinners, parties, golf and sheer serendipity. The perspectives and wisdom of others rub off on you. As the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, said, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” In another article, Clayton Christensen disparaged learning from others “For highly selective schools, the other difficult-to-disrupt jobs have to do with networking, connections, and brand. Again, however, these jobs have nothing to do with the core missions of colleges and universities.” Learning to learn from each other and in-person is vitally important and much more durable than waves of new technology: it is at least as old as Socrates’ academy in ancient Athens.
  4. Growth in communication skills. Seasoned executives and recruiters tell us that saying the right thing at the right time in the right way is crucially important to being an effective business person. Pure online learning might help you shape the content of your recommendations. But expressing them, particularly orally is only learned by doing. And what passes for written expression in many emails, online chats, and blogs is awful. The high engagement classroom exercises presentation skills: critiquing written work, thinking on your feet; persuading; presenting recommendations and defending them; and reading an audience. For international students, there is the opportunity to deepen one’s spoken mastery of another language. All of this is difficult to replicate in a pure online environment.
  5. Growth in values. The astonishing frauds and collapses in the current financial crisis remind us urgently of the importance of trust and values in business practice. Ultimately, you learn these in close conversation with others. Anonymity breeds anomie. It is hard to lie (or be lied to) looking the other person in the eye. Walter Brueggemann got it right when he wrote that “education for competence without education as meeting promises us deadly values and scary options.”
  6. Growth in leadership skills. The previous five points lead to the natural conclusion that one learns lessons of leadership more richly in direct interaction with others. To be sure, a great deal of leadership in business, government, and NGOs, is being conducted digitally. But learning to do this well is enhanced by structured exercise in person. Since leadership is a social activity, learning to lead cannot take place in isolation, like Einstein working out the theory of relativity.

Darden’s “high touch” teaching approach is the polar opposite of a totally online MBA program. ((I call it “high touch, high tone, and high energy.” It offers an intense and transformational experience (“high energy”) that blends mastery of tools and concepts with leadership and ethics (“high tone”) largely driven by high engagement among students, faculty and staff (“high touch”). We are known as a “case method” school, which conveys only part of the high engagement story: we teach not only with cases, but also with games, simulations, group projects and even a course that is based on theatre. We have special feedback and assessment processes. The instructors are highly engaged with students; they are eminently accessible; there are no graders or teaching assistants between the faculty and students. And outside of the classroom there are over 40 student clubs. By the time you graduate, you know everyone well, a detail that may account for Darden’s strong alumni network. High touch, high tone, and high energy distinguish Darden from the 10,000 schools in the world that award business degrees.)) Yet we have commenced a series of projects this year to study how digital technology can advance our educational mission. Darden will adopt the digital technology it needs to promote the deep transformational learning we offer. Indeed, our MBA Program for Executives is already employing technology in high-engagement ways. But my hunch is that the irreducible core of this kind of learning will entail education as meeting, or continued high-touch engagement.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 01/01/2009 03:03:41 PM