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April 12, 2001 Letters





Classroom education is more than information

The following is an open letter to Provost and Vice-Rector Research Jack Lightstone:

I am deeply worried after reading your comments in the Montreal Gazette. To quote: “Lightstone doesn’t care about attendance because playing hooky from university no longer means that the student has missed the material. Through online resources, students who need extra help or can’t make one of Lightstone’s classes can access course notes and a streaming video clip of his lectures on the Internet.”

The suggestion that students will get as much from reading notes on the Internet (or from a book) as they do from a class seems to me, with all due respect, to be very short-sighted. As presented by The Gazette, your comments appear to confuse information with education.

In my view, to offer someone an education is to provide him/her with much more than information, and whereas reading is fundamental to acquiring knowledge, the classroom is a site where thought can be seen in action.

In the classroom, students are required to think and reflect critically in “real time,” on the spur of the moment, to exercise their capacity for taking notes and to develop their capacity for memory—real memory, active and imagination-based memory, the kind of memory Greek orators needed and developed, not the passive storehouse memory we find in our hard-drives.

In this sense, the classroom is a place where students learn about rhetoric. They also learn about civility and, in seminars and graduate courses, learn to discuss and conduct group research. A student who doesn’t attend class may indeed be able to write a good paper or a good exam. But when we need to evaluate a student’s performance (say, for a scholarship), the ability to have seen the student behave, ask questions, discuss, are paramount to the evaluation —and for good reason.

The Internet may be useful in certain circumstances (to catch up on a class missed, for instance), but it cannot substitute for a human presence in the classroom.

As communication experts and semioticians know, the more mediated an experience, the more chance there is for noise. All representations, without exception, deal with a given amount of vagueness. (This, in fact is necessarily so—absolute precision would hinder communication.) Yet whenever possible, it is better to insure an actual presence than a mediated one. Real communication implies reciprocity.

The idea that students will get an equivalent education surfing the Web at home seems to me a dangerous one. This university seems to be carried away with the new techno-trends at the moment. Few seem to notice how much of a financial black hole cyber-academia will be.

What is at stake, of course, is not technology per se (which is neither good nor bad in itself), but our attitude toward it. My hope is that we don’t lose sight of the basics.

Martin Lefebvre, PhD
Associate Professor,
Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema,
Editor, Recherches Semiotiques/Semiotic Inquiry,
Winner of CCSL Teaching
Excellence Award, 2000-2001