IF you put your head underwater in the Sea of Cortez, you will hear a crackling sound. In my summer field course for undergraduates, there were two students who noticed it before all the others. One was a young man who was blind; the other was a precocious musician.
Alongside, three other students and I were floating on our backs in the sea, holding one ear underwater, to hear the crackle, and one ear in the air, to listen to one another. The blind student described the sound as “footsteps on kindling.”
When I told them what was actually making the sound, their reaction was, in a word, Shrimp!?! And then: But how? And then: But why?
Pistol shrimp make their pops by shooting the “thumb” of one claw into a socket on the larger, opposing part of the same claw. The action squeezes out a jet of water that spurts so fast it opens up a small envelope of space in its wake. When this cavity collapses under the weight of the ocean, the vapor inside is crushed back into liquid, creating a shock wave, which we perceive as a pop.
The shrimp use such bubbles not only to stun their prey but also to communicate, so our floating conversation segued to social life: certain species of pistol shrimp form large colonies with true division of labor and altruistic behavior. From there we moved to the evolution of symbiosis (a surprising collaboration between pistol shrimp and gobies) and biodiversity (there are 600 species of pistol shrimp). 600!?! But how? But why? And on we ventured, into Darwin’s “mystery of mysteries,” the origin of species.
I relate this because I believe it is relevant to the debate about a major transition now under way in higher education: Colleges are moving many courses into an online environment, doing away with traditional classrooms and labs.
There are potential advantages to this shift. When students are logged on, educators can monitor their work in ways that are otherwise impossible. Also, online courses are often more accessible to students who have competing responsibilities, like earning a wage. And, for what they cost colleges to offer, online courses can pull in a lot of tuition dollars, because a single professor’s lectures can be streamed to an almost unlimited number of students, with most grading handled by computers. Many major universities have signed up with private companies to offer MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, some of which include thousands of students.
But drawbacks have been pointed out. In several studies, students in online courses were more likely to struggle and drop out than were their counterparts in traditional classrooms. The discrepancy was particularly pronounced for students who were economically less privileged and educationally less well prepared. At least in part, the explanation is that social ties and facetime — the real kind — keep kids motivated and focused. What’s more, those social ties often compose a network that lasts a lifetime.
What worries me most about online courses is something else. Every pedagogical situation can be thought of as a kind of triangle among three parties: the student, the teacher, and the world that student and teacher investigate together. In online courses, the patch of world under examination is highly curated: educators select exactly what material will inhabit the course’s online environment. In short, the pedagogical triangle gets collapsed into a binary relationship between student and teacher.
The problem with this arrangement is that it emphasizes one particular and narrow view of what purpose college serves. Courses are seen mainly as steps in accreditation, as obstacle courses that students must run to demonstrate suitability for certain jobs. Online courses serve this function well, because they assess continuously: the student’s keystrokes, his underlining, even his time viewing each screen are all logged and analyzed.
There is no doubt that continual assessment can improve pedagogy: a teacher can catch and quickly remedy misunderstandings. However, one reason conversations like the one prompted by pistol shrimp are so deeply gratifying is that they have nothing at all to do with assessment or accreditation. They are not on the syllabus or the final exam. Rather, they are reminders that college serves purposes entirely unrelated to accreditation: courses prompt and equip students to investigate the world, leading not merely to a diploma and a salary, but to a more engaged life — not just to a richer bank balance, but to a richer existence.
But when the educational triangle is collapsed — when the outside world loses its stature as a full-blown third party — then you don’t take a course to understand the world, you take a course to succeed in the course. Education gets reduced to a testing and triage service.
The other reason to preserve the educational triangle is that it provides training for other, similarly configured pursuits. Scientific research, for instance, is both vitally social and directly empirical. Scientists attend conferences and read one another’s papers, but we also test the claims of others against our own experience and experiments.
To put it differently, we use one ear to listen to one another, the other ear to listen to the water. This is a crucial skill not just for scientists, but for any citizen in a democracy. To weigh the claims of authority against evidence that is not curated by that same authority; to forget, at least occasionally, about how one is being watched or assessed by that authority; to be skeptical and independently minded — these are vital abilities in a citizenry defensive of its own power, and I worry that students working inside a virtual world of their professor’s construction are learning to listen too much to the teacher and too little to outside evidence.
How can we claim the advantages of online education without losing that most essential, triangular configuration of higher education? One possibility, now being implemented in pioneering programs, is the hybrid online-field course. In the online environment, students read text, watch lectures and solve problems. They then meet their professor in the appropriate field setting — a museum; a nature reserve; a certain city neighborhood — and actively apply their newly developed disciplinary perspective.
This approach might give us the best of both worlds. Research has shown that the most effective teachers spend less time lecturing and more time engaging students in follow-up work. Early research on hybrid online-classroom courses suggests they retain students as well as traditional courses. In my experience, the field setting naturally fosters strong social ties, one key to assisting and retaining underprivileged students.
Also, what better way to encourage students to test their professor’s claims against direct evidence than to put them all in the field together? When my group of six floated over to others, who were already out on the reef, I told them all to put their ears in the water.
“It’s shrimp!” I announced.
“Actually,” said the blind young man, “this is different.”
A half-hour later, the sea proved him right: we encountered a superpod of common dolphins, clicking and whistling to one another as they traveled in a great phalanx across the bay.
Aaron Hirsh is chairman of the Vermilion Sea Institute and the author of “Telling Our Way to the Sea: a Voyage of Discovery in the Sea of Cortez.”