A friend of mine was recently telling me about the spread of the use of online degree programs to high school. This was news to me. I had heard about the growth of programs through institutions like the University of Phoenix that led to online college degrees. I knew that you can learn to do a lot of specific practical tasks through YouTube and other online sources. And I knew that high schools used computer programs for specific focused educational purposes. But I had never heard about the kind of far-reaching educational programs for high school that my friend was talking about.
During precisely those years when a human being is trying to develop the social competencies that help him transition from being a child to being an adult, it is important that an adolescent has ongoing interpersonal communication practice. And I mean social practice with three-dimensional human beings in the external world of primary experience. Lacking opportunities for such experience, and simply immersing oneself in educational cyberspace will lead to certain unforeseen consequences.
To understand the situation of high school online education a little better, we must review the world of experience that is available on a computer screen. The computer screen itself is an empty vacuum of continuous imageless stimuli that would stretch into infinity if the screen wasn’t contained by a frame. There is no grounding in this screen. What the screen does have floating on it are three levels of discrete stimuli. There are the discrete stimuli of digital points of light and color. Together these digital points form configurations that make visual images and that make words and numbers. The words and numbers are a means of generating discrete digital data.
On a basic visual level, there are the visual equivalent of digital ones and zeroes on the screen. Points and non-points. The points can cluster together, but they can’t deep-bond or merge together with one another. They can appear to merge together in a movie or a television program on the screen, but the images are all clusters of digital points. There are no flowing, blendable continual stimuli to bind things together. This is the basic visual experiential pattern that online high school students have to deal with during the course of their school day.
In terms of subject matter, there is another pattern that corresponds to the basic visual pattern. Online education lends itself to excerpts of books, short discrete defined pieces of narrative or expository writing that don’t go into anything in a deep grounded way. They are chunks of cognitive data floating free of any meaningful grounded larger contexts. Students absorb facts, ideas and literary images without spending time relating them to contexts that connect deeply to their lives either in psychological or practical ways.
Yes, students do interact with programs that get them to actively participate in their education. Students have to respond to questions and to prompts. But these are defined discrete responses to defined discrete problems and situations. This is not the way life always is. Life is filled with ambiguity and contingencies. Many times solutions to problems are not simple and are tenuous at best. Human teachers can bring this dimension to class studies through class discussions and through one-on-one conferences. Primary experience life situations are filled with flowing blendable continual stimuli that have ambiguous blurry definition. This can’t be reproduced in the world of the computer screen. The computer screen deals with defined discrete digital certainties.
Now from what I understand, teachers do supervise these programs for their students. Teachers are present in the classroom. But the bulk of the daily work that the students do is on the computer screen.
To the extent that the computer screen does not contain stimuli – either visual or cognitive – that reflect the ambiguities of life, students will not be properly prepared for adult living. They will become intolerant of the uncertainty and complexity of adult living in the primary experience world, and feel safer with the certainty and greater clarity of the cyber world. Their minds will become molded to mirror the workings of the computer. And as this happens, they will become less and less capable of functioning as organic human beings. Less and less capable of the bonded connections that lead to good solid love relationships, good solid work relationships, good solid friendships and good solid community participation.
Even those modern students who are not in online classes, but who use consumer technology a lot, are having difficulties forming solid human connections in the external world. Such students end up in an intolerable growing isolation in an experiential vacuum. Although some of their isolation is due simply to withdrawal from the overstimulation of abrasive static stimuli as in the crowding from overpopulation, noise pollution, air pollution, and, in general, the accelerated pace of modern life, much of it is due to feeling overwhelmed by simple bonded connections to other people. And as the students withdraw further into numbness to escape what are for them the increasingly overstimulating human situations in the external world, they try to fight that numbness at the same time by doing self-destructive things like drugs, binge drinking, cutting their wrists or carrying out attempted suicides. In the case of the suicides, many of the young people hope that by warning other people directly or indirectly, someone will save them before it’s too late. But the sad truth is that an attempted suicide – one that fails - actually temporarily brings many students to life, pulls them out of the living death of their numbness.
Other students just become more successfully robotic from their immersion in consumer technology. Somehow they find a way to survive the technological isolation in which they have immersed by taking on the traits of their technology.
Students need the massage of human contact. And human teachers are going to be more successful in putting facts and ideas in larger contexts, so that knowledge can be taught as a more coherent flow. This parallels the flow of organic life based in primary experience. This is the way life should be lived by mammalian human beings. Having ongoing interactions with teachers and with other students teaches students to engage the external world, to become active members of other social groupings like families, clubs, and communities. Ongoing interactions in the primary experiences of the classroom help students to develop coherent identities within human structures outside of themselves.
On still another level, our minds become indications of what we have become as people. If what our students absorb is digital points; defined discrete images, facts and ideas; excerpts of books; random chunks of entities and events floating in an experiential vacuum, then all this will act as a mirror and an implicit model for how our students will develop, how their minds will configure. Lack of coherence in their daily fields of experience, in their worlds of experience in cyberspace, will lead to lack of coherence in their unfolding senses of self. And a fragmented sense of self is not conducive to long-term viability of an organic individual human. In the long term, fragmented senses of self pose a real danger to the human race. This is what we have to consider when something as seemingly innocent as online high school degree programs are introduced into the lives of many of the people we love dearly, people who look to us for guidance and protection.
© 2014 Laurence Mesirow