The seventh annual Sloan Foundation Study of Online Learning revealed that one in four college students took at least one online course in the 2008 academic year—a 17 percent increase from just the previous year. This rapid growth seems to be fueled mainly by a perceived need by universities to be more convenient and accessible for students. This trend may be a source of excitement and opportunity for many other educators. At the same time, some educators may be concerned that the kinds of technology that afford learning anytime and anywhere may not support the kind of focused, sustained effort required by meaningful learning. I am one of those educators. In this essay I offer a critique from an aesthetic perspective of one aspect of online learning—online discussions.
Aesthetic Critiques of Technology and Education
In many ways concerns about the growth of online learning parallel concerns about the role of internet technology in art education. For example, Ruby discussed the challenges of experiencing museum paintings through the medium of Web-based images.1 She acknowledged the importance of convenience and access, as well as some art-related advantages of viewing digital images. In the end, Ruby concludes, "Despite the educational benefits of all the reproductions now available to us, the value of a visit to the original can never be underestimated."2 In the field of music, McKeown-Green addresses the debate that live music is superior to recorded music.3 Building on the work of Gracyk,4 McKeown-Green's careful critique reins in and refines several broad claims associated with this debate. McKeown-Green concludes, "One can learn at least as much about music via a recording as [End Page 15] one can by watching it live . . . If this is right, music educators ought to exploit electronic technology vigorously and enthusiastically."5
I chose these two examples not simply because they critique the role of technology and art education, but because they avoid taking an "either/or" stance on the issue. No doubt, taking a position on one side or the other would be more forceful and dramatic. Positions are clearly staked out, differences are accentuated, and the rhetoric can be more pointed. However, the authors of these particular critiques and many others like them would no doubt agree with Dewey's contention that an either/or dichotomy misrepresents the situation and is unlikely to lead to a productive way forward.6 That being said, in moving away from the poles of a debate, one runs the risk of seeming not to have any distinct point of view. How many articles or speeches on the issue of technology and art education might be summarized thusly: sometimes it's good to use technology in art education, sometimes it's not, and sometimes it's best to use both. Indeed, careful analysis may lead to this conclusion; however, one cannot help feel let down by this denouement.
Here's a third example: Anderson's critique of online drama education avoids taking a stance for or against "traditional" or "new" practices in drama education.7 Instead, Anderson emphasizes how the challenges of online drama education can renew our awareness of what's important to drama education in both online and traditional contexts. Anderson expands McLean's8 pioneering framework for drama aesthetics to include both traditional drama contexts and "stages" that involve computer technology. Even though the resulting framework accommodates both sides of the argument, it is not so much a middle-ground compromise as a "new ground" synthesis. Common foundational ideas are distilled from both positions and offered as guidelines for practice in both face-to-face and online contexts. The intelligence of Anderson's rhetorical moves are further illustrated in how he holds fast to certain convictions while adopting a pluralistic tone. This is only possible because he avoids taking sides about the best context for drama education and, instead, maintains an unwavering position about the best content for drama education.
It is in the spirit of Anderson's critique that I will examine the aesthetic experience of participating in online discussions. I will...