Is Traditional Institutionalized Learning Inept for our Troubled Times, and can Online Learning fill that Lacuna?

I rarely questioned our current education system until the name Umar Khalid started trending on twitter last year. Umar Khalid is a PhD student from India, who was charged with sedition because he voiced that legal procedures were compromised in the conviction of a fellow citizen. He along with many students were extremely disappointed that their demand for a ‘better education’ through dissenting space and more active participation in social and political causes was being considered as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

The idea that student community while pursuing its structured academic goals can also be an active contributor in detangling the complex existential problems of our societies is perhaps too distractive for most people. Primarily because, we are conditioned into thinking that education is this privileged activity that humans engage in, trading time and money for an illusionary better future with more money. As though pumping more money into a household, society, country or world will automatically rid us of all the social, political, cultural and religious evils.

The ideal direction for any education system according to Adam Flexner is one in which the world is more just with fullest opportunity for every human mind to break its shackles and experience intellectual freedom. End goals of such a direction cease to be certifications, degrees, diplomas or high paying jobs rather, unhindered human spirit that doesn’t give in to the immediate demands of human wants. Henceforth, how changes in the content, delivery, formats or administration of the education system could be effective in cultivating critical independence of thought and enquiry among students.

In this essay, I shall explore the question of the extent to which online learning can be successful in eliminating some of the harmful side effects of traditional institutionalized education and also address its own shortcomings as they are currently becoming evident across the world.

Social critic Ivan Illich in his work “Deschooling society” in 1971 famously had written that “the institutionalization of education is considered to institutionalize society and conversely that ideas for de-institutionalizing education may be a starting point for a de-institutionalized society.” The advent of online learning is nothing short of a revolution to deinstitutionalize education. The deinstitutionalized education pursuit considers education as a lifelong activity that is space and time independent, driven by the need of understanding complex concepts, sharing knowledge and resources in real time, with minimal administration and administrator associated social, political or religious biases. All this seems to be achievable with the onset of online learning. However, the key drawbacks of traditional schooling system such as commodification of education, hierarchical teacher pupil relationships, shrinking space for dissent, might effectively exist even in the online environment.


Online education is popular among students of higher learning primarily because it facilitates learning at one’s own pace, while simultaneously juggling work and family time. There is a lack of research in school aged children on the impact of online learning on their overall development. As higher numbers of millennials are seeking online education, the pros and cons of online learning, are most often times applicable to only this age group with minimal deviations.  In a meta-analytic review of 13,737 American college students, the authors have shown a considerable decline in empathy and perspectives taking among millennials.4 Increase in narcissism, changes in the content and exposure of media, use of personal technology in everyday lives almost replacing physical social interactions with online communication, changing parenting styles, increased exposure to acts of violence and bullying were discussed to be some factors that are impacting the ability of millennials to empathize.4 The need for emotional intelligence, interprofessional education and other cognitive fields can be said to have arisen because of extending online learning to fields which were otherwise not made for virtual learning. In times when traditional classroom learning system is being criticized for taking away the richness of context from learning through lived experiences, the advent of online learning has added additional complexities. The result now is that the glorious direction that online learning intends to pursue might end up becoming the direction that leads to radical abstractness, contextual reduction, and to greater human disconnect.


Another distinguishing feature between online or class room learning and learning through lived experiences is as stark as the difference between information and knowledge. Online or class room learning seems to oversimplify education through lived experiences by severe reductionist methods. Real learning of complex concepts happens through methods as our tactile, visual, auditory and olfactory senses are effectively stimulated. Skill learning, information processing, and application of theory are diverse interdependent educational pursuits with undeniable potential to challenge status quo. Therefore extreme emphasis must be laid to not devoid structured online education of social, religious, political or economic contexts. The key to understand is that knowing is not learning. Efforts must be made to highlight the nuances of developing theoretical frameworks and mastering practice, allowing opportunity for the pursuers of theory in humanities, social sciences, arts and literature to thrive in today’s impact driven society dominated by science, technology, engineering and mathematics.


Online learning does not necessarily imply structured education that was designed for classroom learning packaged into electronic or online formats. It also includes the dearth of information that people are exposed to through social media and other electronic media. In the process there is not a mass production of creative minds but a mass display of pretentious humans with artificial intelligence conditioned by templates and checklists, comparable to that of robots. Finally for it to be a game changer, education cannot be seen as a duty but as an opportunity available to everyone who is breathing and seeking or not seeking through online or offline means; just by living individuals can be educated to aim not for competition but cooperation; not for making more money but making more moral sense. Finally, aiming for a system of learning that is aware of its shortcomings and finding alternative ways of minimizing risks of a sub optimal educational experience can ensure we do not miss out the central moral imperatives that make an educated mind an educated mind.



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