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The phrase ‘online learning’ is alluring and misleading: the site of learning is the mind

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 14 May 2020

Farid Panjwani


A plethora of packages, platforms and information sources have flooded the Internet to help locked-down children learn from home and advise parents on how to help them. There is no going back on this trend.


With screens increasingly competing with face to face learning (and currently taking over from it), we can be sure that in the coming years students will be exposed to even larger swaths of information. Is this a good thing? Not necessarily. Without knowing how to swim, jumping into a bigger pool of water may bring more harm than good.  Unless we recognise that learning requires much more than the provision of hardware and software, resources and technical know-how, we are in the danger of confusing ‘process and substance’, as was noted by Ivan Illich. In this sense, the phrase ‘online learning’ is alluring but misleading. The site of learning is the mind. 

The freer pathway between students and information will mean that the triad of teacher-student-content will become heavily loaded on the axis of student and content. This will significantly transform relationships between teachers and students. The idea of teacher as a facilitator will no longer be a choice but a necessity. The role of the teacher ought to become, in Socratic terms, that of a pedagogical mid-wife, supporting the birth of a critical relationship between learners and information. 

What does this involve? Already, in schools children learn to consider questions such as ‘what is fake news?’ However, these examinations need to be more critical. This means not only assessing knowledge claims for their logical validity and coherence but also their relationship with power, the difference between information and knowledge, the nature of the claims, their relationship with social structures, their probabilistic and contested features and the way they are used by various interests. 

Teaching history, for example, cannot be just about ‘facts’ and narratives but must involve helping students to begin to think like a historian: asking questions about sources, understanding the role of interpretation, the plausibility of multiple narratives and the shaping influence of structures of power and what comes to count as a historical fact. This ability go underneath information is equally true for science, geography, religion and other subjects. All this has an obvious implication for teacher education, which should begin to include exposure to epistemology and sociology of knowledge.

Greater access to information by the students also means that teaching can be calibrated much more with the interests of individual children than rigid syllabuses and textbooks currently allow. Schooling is often seen as a process of creating conformity and uncritical obedience, and even teachers who wish to challenge this tendency find it hard because of the way the power of the system is embodied, from government policies to exam systems. 

Maybe now there will be greater possibilities for nurturing individuals’ aptitudes and interests. Children are naturally curious. They are self-learners when the slightest opportunity is thrown their way and many children develop an impressive array of knowledge in their areas of interest. There should be more opportunities for these to serve as pedagogical underpinnings for learning within formal education, bringing together the joy of freedom with the responsibility of learning. 

There is likely to be a huge increase in the suppliers of information for online platforms. This will create a need for a pertinent form of quality control of content aimed at children’s education. Such a regulatory framework is unlikely to happen in the near future, but should be done at the earliest possible time.

The increased supply of information also increases the need for teachers to help students become aware of the persuasive power of the medium. Take for example, an advert for an item of clothing. There is more to it than just fulfilling a physical need. It is part of a social ritual called shopping, which can be as important as the purchase itself. Further, there is a whole socioeconomic dimension: a chain of production, marketing, financing, and distribution is involved in the making of the clothing one buys. The analysis of the purchase also includes considerations of fashion and the symbolic statements made by the garment (and the wearer). These are rich areas of investigation, developing critical understanding of how a given society is organised. 

Finally, there is the issue of possible loss in social interactions and with it of opportunities to form habitus of living together with all its bliss, tensions and uncertainties. This will make the Aristotelian dictate that ‘Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education’ singularly important. Superb information processing without the impulse of care and empathy runs the risk of becoming instrumental and self-centred. The self’s relationship with others forms the basis of identity, understanding and presentation. Cultivating care as the crucible for our relations with ourselves, others and the environment must form an important aim. 

Empathy, the ability ‘to be an intelligent reader of another person’s story’, as Nussbaum puts it. always requires an imaginative leap, since we can never have direct access to another person’s mind. Literature, the arts and history, that is parts of the humanities, can play very important role in fostering empathy. 

In short, the current stress on the techne with regard to learning online must be guided by telos, its aim and purpose. Neither information nor online tools but a critical relationship with knowledge guided by empathy can help us stand between the tyranny of certainty and paralyses of doubt and envision a different and better future.

Photo: neurons by Mike Seyfang via Creative Commons

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5 Responses to “The phrase ‘online learning’ is alluring and misleading: the site of learning is the mind”

  • 1
    Huw Humphreys wrote on 14 May 2020:

    Farid, this is really timely. Thank you for the post. The communal nature of learning, and the function of the mind interacting with others as learning is grasped, is alien to the “child-screen content” relationship, and it confuses both the nature of learning, and, as you say, its (communal, moral) telos.

    Using Augustine’s separation out of the motivation for learning into “curiositas” (learning for the sake of the learner, or the appetite for the ownership of new knowledge) with “studiositas” (an appetite for closer reflexive intimacy with the gift of knowledge and the gift of being able to learn), it is clear that the former can happen through the acquisition of screen-based content, whereas the latter, more akin to Aristotle’s phronesis, must happen in an active relationship between the learner(s), his/her (their) moral or ethical formation, the content learned and the voice of wisdom that prevents humility being sacrificed for hubris (i.e. the teacher!!).

    And part of that, especially currently, is, as you say, the cultivation of care for both the learner and the subject learned, worthy of attentive love (akribeia in Augustine’s Greek). Tom Wright calls this “the epistemology of love” and as a suitable epistemology for our times, I find it has a lot to recommend it!

    Thanks again for posting!


  • 2
    Gavin Moodie wrote on 14 May 2020:

    This seems to assume that ‘social interactions’ and indeed ‘The communal nature of learning’ is necessarily face to face, but of course much social interaction and communal learning has been mediated at least since Paul’s epistles.

  • 3
    rogertitcombe wrote on 14 May 2020:

    This a timely article which raises issues of profound importance. Ethical issues are addressed in the article, but there are also concerns about pedagogy and the nature of effective deep learning. You are right to state that ‘learning takes place in the mind of the learner’, and that it can never be a passive process if it is to be both effective and promoting of cognitive growth. I discuss these issues here.


  • 4
    Perspectivă: De ce e înșelătoare formula “școală online”? O discuție despre scop și mijloace – SCOALA XYZ wrote on 17 May 2020:

    […] arată un expert al Institutului de Educație din cadrul University College London, într-un articol publicat pe blogul acestui for. Specialistul Farid Panjwani atrage atenția asupra riscului de a confunda forma cu fondul în […]

  • 5
    Hans wrote on 19 May 2020:

    Citizenship education