The Virtues of Real Life Versus Virtual Life

Posted on May 28, 2020


I am going to sound like a true troglodyte speaking of the past way of doing things as opposed to today’s way of doing things. But I see education slipping down the road of dispirited encounters with screens and videos rather than fresh and life-giving moments in the real with teachers, and it is both sad and I think a poor substitute for the real thing.

The language of teaching is described in the modern binary: either online or face to face. The latter is what many of us would say traditional. You troop into a lecture hall or classroom with your book/s and notepad and listen to the lecturer either entertain you with great stories or drone on in a near mind-numbing monologue.

The modern girl is digital, in school, at play, at work, going to the bank, sit in front of the computer and work or play your way through the day and evening.

Today, of course, we don’t even go to school as the Corona virus pandemic works its way through our lives and we stay home mostly in front of our screens. But while social separation may be new, and hopefully temporary, all this has been in the making for at least the past half century or since computer gurus like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and others were inventing the modern personal computer. I am composing on one right now. Call me a hypocrite but I find it especially useful. Lovely and most efficient when you can back up and edit your writing on the fly as it were. Delete, retype, backspace, bing, bang and you have improved and written a million times faster than the old typewriter, and, for you youngsters who remember, we used to write by hand. Good handwriting was called penmanship. Try and find it in any school curriculum these days.

I, on the other hand, learned touch typing in high school, the best course I ever took, and it was on a Saturday and just a voluntary addition to my prep school demands. Today I don’t even need to use a keyboard much. Just dictate to my machine, my clever app translating my speaking almost immediately into text on the page of my machine. But I don’t think well on the fly, so I still type away.

Let’s return to education all the way from K-12 through college and beyond. The question is are kids and students of all ages learning better at a distance, or online, digitally, any way you want describe teaching via some electronic device? Or will they learn better with a live teacher in a classroom, or “face-to-face” lingo in today’s language.

The answer is not simple and conditioned by way too many factors to consider within the confines of a short essay.

What is the best way to learn to fly, for one example? Computer simulation is available for just about any level of flying, from learning in a single-engine Cessna 150 (like I did) or simulating a flight into space. Real motion simulators will bounce you around in simulated weather, simulate breaking your aircraft, and puncture a simulated hole in your simulated gas tank. Before your simulated space craft gets lost in space or your Piper plunges into Lake Tuscaloosa, you simply recycle the simulator and start again. Did you learn something? Of course, you did.

But also let me suggest that there is NO substitute for the real thing, like real weather, real clouds, real thunder storms and you are in a real pickle in a real plane in the real air and have to find the real airport and get that sucker down through real clouds, rain, maybe snow, and winds, and then make a real landing. You cannot turn the simulator off and start again.

On the other hand, there are I bet dozens and hundreds of courses of study that one can learn a lot without sitting in a classroom or a lab, although simulating lab work might be trickier to do. I once taught a true online course on the History of Christianity which is one of the most enjoyable courses I taught over the years, from undergraduates to oldsters in OLLI. I had rather cavalierly thought off hand that I would “never” teach an online course and so miss the interaction between professor and student that takes place in the classroom.

The prep for that course was long and demanding and I had some superb professionals in the continuing education program who walked me through it. Thanks guys and gals.

And then I taught the course and I learned more about those kids in that online class that I had ever gotten to know with any other students in a traditional face to face course in almost 40 years of teaching. Go figure. I never met them, except digitally, but when they got into the course and did all the work as we proceeded with readings, reports, comments on each other’s work, and moving interactively through the materials, videos, etc. it turned into one of the most satisfying teaching assignments in my career.

Here I was, an old timer, wedded he thought to the Socratic method, coming away with a sense of satisfaction and achievement from an online course.

But there is still that nagging sense of having missed something. I would have liked to talk with them, face to face, listen to their book reports if in a small enough class, let them query me on areas of interest and controversy in the subject matter, poke them a bit with some leading questions on whatever history was before us (was the Spanish conquest of the Americas legal?) and sometimes, usually on their own initiative, be available to chat in the office about things related to history, life, careers. This is called “mentoring” in the language of old. It seems to me hard to do virtually.

When we moved from Peru to the U. S., I was nine years old and skipped a grade to stay in my age bracket in class. Mrs. Thomas tutored me in the summer of 1952 to make sure I was caught up in math. I don’t remember anything of Mrs. Thomas and even less of math, but I do remember a personal relationship that maybe meant something to her, but certainly impressed me with trying to please her, not a virtual Mrs. Thomas.

Published as “The virtues of real life vs. virtual life,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, May 24, 2020.

Posted in: Life in America