…online courses do less to promote student learning and progression than do in-person courses for students at the margin. Taking a course online reduces student achievement by about one-quarter to one-third of a standard deviation, as measured by course grades, and reduces the probability of remaining enrolled by three to ten percentage points (over a base of 68 percent). Taking a course online also reduces student grade point average in the next term by more than one-tenth of a standard deviation. Additionally, we find that student achievement outcomes are more variable in online classes. The variation of course grades increases by as much as one-fifth in online sections, and the variance in student grade point average in the next term increases by more than one-tenth. By contrast, we find that the variation in professors’ contributions to student achievement and persistence are smaller in online classes than in-person classes.
As a hall director, I’m wondering if a similar study on learning outcomes in the residence hall could be incorporated. In residence life, we have our own learning outcomes. Often these outcomes lay along the lines of “complete the transition to college,” “establish healthy interdependence,” or “develop leadership skills.” With my student staff, I create programming to cultivate learning opportunities in order to achieve these outcomes. Yet, my students experience college in front of screens now more than ever. Much of my own work unfortunately takes place in front of a screen as well. It seems we increasingly live inside our heads more than we live inside our bodies. Our human interactions are mediated through online experiences, through profiles which pose as our “real selves.” Such behavior may threaten our ability to develop students into virtuous members of society if they interact under false identities.
I believe that if the great Neil Postman had lived long enough, he would have undoubtedly moved his critique of television’s impact on public discourse to include the internet. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman laments over current public discourse (substitution mine):
“I do not mean to imply that [the internet] deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that [the internet] entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed.”
This loss of being “well informed” threatens our human relationships. A society which lacks the capacity to truly “know” people risks viewing them inhumanely. History is filled with stories of the violent result of human ignorance. In the midst of such barbarism, I love the story of Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi party who acted with compassion. When asked about why he worked to save 1300+ Jews from certain death in the Holocaust, Oskar Schindler replied “I knew the people who worked for me. When you know people, you have to behave towards them like human beings” (emphasis mine).
In the close proximity of residence hall life, my students maintain the unique opportunity to know other people through daily interaction. Programming helps to facilitate this interaction. However, no matter how many programs my student staff and I offer, the vast majority of my residents’ time in the hall will not involve participating in programming. Ultimately, the main work of achieving learning outcomes is in those moments of brushing their teeth in the community bathroom, cooking popcorn in the hall kitchen, or when someone enters a room with a propped open door. Yet when someone shifts their gaze toward their iPhone, their misdirected attention diminishes the impact of these moments. While a student may be physically present in the same room with a roommate, minimized attention causes mental and emotional absence. In this kind of social environment, people who live close together risk never truly knowing each other despite the frequency of their paths crossing.
Wendell Berry beautifully captures this problem in his poem “The Vacation.” He writes of someone who spent their entire vacation recording their experiences on video in order for it to live forever on film. However, the person missed that although he went on vacation and documented it, they were never in their vacation. Similarly, when we lock our attention upon our screens, we ignore the physical presence of others. We deny them face-to-face embodiment in favor of out-of-body experiences with people far away.
However, to create the kind of environment where people can meaningfully know each other, they need the presence of bodies who exhibit embodied practices. Ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has written much on this theme. Drawing on his own upbringing with his father in teaching him how to lay brick, Hauerwas argues for the importance of apprenticeship for the “craft” of moral formation in higher education. Simply to know what is “good” does not necessarily translate into people doing the good. Rather, Hauerwas says “learning to think… is as physical as learning to carve stone.” The task of educators is not about making the language of moral behavior meaningful. Instead, Hauerwas encourages educators to “direct attention to… [the] masters” of moral behavior whose “lives have been shaped” by the “grammar” of morality. In other words, forming moral people requires them to physically witness the example of someone behaving compassionately or fairly to someone else.
While more definitive social science research is needed to prove the extent of how time in front of a screen is impacting our students’ experience of college, I suspect more conclusions similar to the CEPA study on learning in-class will appear. As a hall director, I believe in the experience of residence life to transform people into more moral people. Yet to do this, the residence hall needs “bodies.” It needs my body in the sense of exhibiting compassion to struggling students when they show up in my office. It needs my student staffs’ bodies in demonstrating what “community” looks like when stop to talk in the hallway. While we can practice patience and kindness through our online behavior, those digital experiences will never substitute for the holistic experience of being present to another human being, occupying space and time, uniting body, mind, and spirit.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Wimer Alberto on Housing Operations