Why we need to reconsider the value of the virtual classroom

Opinion: It is all too easy for students to zone out in online or blended learning

Online programmes are on the rise in the Irish university sector, with everything from certificates and diplomas to undergraduate and postgraduate degrees now being offered in a fully online or “blended” mode.

Their champions argue that online offerings attract students wishing to combine study with paid employment or those tailoring continuous professional development around young family or caring needs.

Moreover, it is argued that online qualifications are often cheaper than campus-based options; and with the current crisis in affordable accommodation it is clear that financial considerations are increasingly pressing for students in Ireland.

Defenders of the online model continue to cite this lower cost as well as increased flexibility and democratisation of access across the board.


Foregrounding this rhetoric of access, choice and flexibility – as well as the broader ambitions of technological advancement and global reach – each of our universities have dedicated online education platforms for their current and prospective students; relevant indicators all suggest that this dimension of the student population is only set to grow in the coming years.

But given this projected and seemingly unstoppable growth and given, moreover, continuing discussions about the role of the university in Irish public life, those of us working in academia need to take a more considered stance on the inevitability or otherwise of the online model.

Examining again the broader rationale for the virtual classroom, we need to pose a number of difficult questions of ourselves, of our students and of our universities more broadly.

Foremost among these is the gap between rhetoric and reality. In this we might ask whether the demand for online learning emerges from students, in truth, or whether it is at least partially constructed by universities wishing to enhance their educational brand on a national as well as a global scale.

In raising this argument we are of course mindful of the increasing marketisation of the third-level sector – of the university’s image as late-capitalist business in constant competition with other late-capitalist businesses for resources in short supply.

Online modules and programmes, on this picture, are just another suite of products developed for the savvy consumer.

Human relationships

On a more practical level, however, it is still crucial to ask what effect these online modes might have on our human relationships and communities.

How might they alter students’ attitudes to their own participation and commitment? And what educational goods, in sum, are we set to gain or lose in the virtual environment?

Taking the last of these questions first, as far back as 2001 philosopher Hubert Dreyfus argued that absence of face-to-face interaction has disastrous effects on student participation – that it effectively legitimates student withdrawal, student deception, and a singular lack of student commitment.

Educational relationships fostering mutual respect and trust are simply difficult to nurture when neither party has met.

We might say that this lack of trust is inscribed in our very assessment of online work where student attendance is relentlessly monitored through superficial measures of participation and engagement. (How many times did this student log in to the virtual classroom? How many comments did they leave or respond to on the discussion forum?)

Moreover, given the temptation to “log in and zone out”, it is arguable that online learning environments bypass completely one of the key requirements of any university experience: that students pay careful attention to the material in front of them.

Rather, in the move from discussion to download, it is all too easy to operate in a skimming rather than a deep reading mode. Those born after 1995 (the so-called “Generation Z”) may be ironically defined by their fear of the telephone call but in virtual learning environments they are given yet another space where they can avoid entirely the messiness of human encounter.

Attracted by the efficiency of online learning “delivery”, these same students now have the ability to opt out completely from the chaos of lived relationship. They have the opportunity to avoid, to deny and even to fully disconnect.

Such disconnection and denial is of course deeply worrying in a contemporary educational climate defined by increasing student loneliness and rapidly deteriorating mental health.


On the contrary, we would defend traditional modes of education for their very special capacity to encourage self-cultivation, to nurture human relationship, and to cultivate democratic community.

In this we would cite Michael Oakeshott’s compelling idea that the university offers us “the gift of the interval”; it is a time and place of refuge where students can test and share their tentative ideas without fear of repercussions from the outside world.

The university on this image is a place for students to lose their way in order to come back as different people. It is a place, in Jon Nixon’s words, “for the unpredictability of self-realisation”.

No amount of pre-determined learning outcomes can accommodate such volatility, such exposure, or such educational risk.

We see the university as an amalgam of these abstract ideals but we see it also as a lived and concrete space.

We are not the first to liken the university to a theatre – a place for the drama of human life to unfold in real time – but if in 2019 we all prefer email over phone conversation then our university might be one of the last bastions of civic purpose.

It might be one of the last defenders of the vital importance of coming together in the here and now. People may meet online, of course, but it is far more likely that they will find those who share their own view rather than challenge it in the mode of a sustained human encounter.

A worrying polarisation

The internet has revolutionised the way in which we access information but it has also facilitated a worrying polarisation of individuals’ knowledge and outlook.

Irish universities are at a crossroads. Unsure of the solid State support they once enjoyed, and facing a 43 per cent reduction in funding per student over the past decade, they must now broaden their income sources to keep the lights on.

Indeed, individual departments and schools are increasingly tempted into an entrepreneurial mindset where online places need to be filled by online students. This temptation is inscribed in the very language we use.

We speak of our undergraduate and postgraduate population “shopping” from “our suite” of online “provision”; we move further and further away from the simple language of student and teacher.

As university academics, we should be highly critical of any such commercial logic that sells more and more online modules in a bid to profiteer from more and more home and international students.

Mindful of the privilege we’ve enjoyed through our own education, we recognise the attractiveness of online learning, whether that be for financial or other reasons. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to ask that all Irish citizens be afforded the right to a full and free education (be that through higher education or similar).

While governments must grapple with the moral and financial imperatives associated with this, we make the case the universities themselves must not lose sight of their values and mission in (desperate) attempts to keep the wolf from the door.

Teaching online

In writing this piece we do not wish to devalue the imagination or innovation of our colleagues who teach online.

And there are of course better and worse modes of teaching in more traditional modes.

But as thoughtful teachers as well as scholars, we need to be able to articulate what it is that we lose on the online model.

We need to be able to defend our teaching practices from external controls and to push back against short-sighted demands for utility and profit.

It may seem that online learning programmes meet the demands of contemporary students but still we would draw attention to the potential for these programmes to undermine our individual agency as well as our collective practice.

Following the recent canonisation of Cardinal John Henry Newman - poet, theologian and founder of UCD – we need to consider again the importance of the liberal university in nurturing civic life.

Certainly, Newman would have been among the first to sanction the university’s importance as a melting pot of messy and conflicting ideas. Education in his view was a communal practice, one that brought people together in ways transformative rather than transactional.

Taking guidance from Newman’s educational vision, and mindful of the ever-widening gap between interactions virtual and real, we would suggest in closing that the best educational relationships constitute embodied encounter where student and teacher can escape the pressures of utility and competition and where they can feel, as a united group focused on a task together, at their most authentically human.

This is education as community and solidarity. It is a form of life at its most improvisatory, fragile and free.

Dr Áine Mahon and Dr Shane Bergin are based at University College Dublin’s school of education