Distance education, emotional development, and the art of Zen

Here I am venturing into slightly hippie areas with that title, but bear with me. I am gearing up for my next few online adventures, which I have pared down to ds 106 and Machine Learning. I am excited to see how things work out but also significantly less optimistic than when I set out for the last course, Human Computer Interaction. Every attempt at MOOC is a considerable struggle with discipline and vague shame for lack of follow-through or the extra mile of self-initiative.

The most frustrating aspect for me is the lack of human interaction coupled with mountains of digital information to sift through. This is ironic, perhaps, because it seems like a necessary evil and if not the quintessence of online/distance education. But it is absolutely driving me crazy, it is perhaps the most unbearable aspect of distance education. Every time I embark on a course, I am quite resistant to the commitment to more screen-time in place of opportunities to interact with the physical world.

As I thought about this, I wonder if it truly has to be so. It seems to be widely accepted that this “distance” is an inevitable aspect of the distance education, but in face of high drop-out rates, I think we have a responsibility to think about the emotional experience of these platforms. By “emotional experience,” I mean a wide variety of things— I mean the ability to interact with other human beings for your social sanity, the healthy balance between screentime and the physical world, and the emotional byproduct from the amount of friction it takes to digest or find the piece of information you need for a course. Most often, the downfall is not really due to about the amount of time or discipline that it requires— it is the horrible emotional experience that comes with the frustration and some loneliness.

I am in no position to suggest how to effectively rectify this situation, but I have a feeling that this is a core problem that needs to be addressed if MOOC’s or online education are ever to be game-changers. Some of the remedies can be simple and obvious: for example, having built-in geocentric-community tools and pages in the platform that allow easy construction of local study groups around it (rather than sifting through forums or having users start various meetup/facebook groups), or actively working with local schools and community organizations to have on-the-ground implementation of these online classes. Others may require more research and insight into human psychology on how we can reduce the alienating effect of so much screentime. Bottom line: let’s start thinking about the emotions elicited by the experience and not just its technical effectiveness.

The emotional ramifications and experience of the internet is a topic that has gotten much airtime, but all too often polarized as a necessary evil to accept or avoid. In an not-all-too-surprising research by Stanford, they found that too much screentime (and associated multitasking) can be detrimental to the emotional development of girls 8 to 12 years old. Here is the real kicker— it can be easily fixed by having more face-to-face conversations. A recent piece in the New York Times talks about the fragile emotions behind our connectedness beautifully, even though it makes me worry about what the future will be like when I have children. Cathy Davidson, the co-founder of HASTAC, tells us

By one recent accounting, in the last decade we’ve gone to 12 billion e-emails sent each day to 247 billion emails, from 400,000 text messages to 4.5 billion, from 2.7 hours a week spent online to 18 hours a week online.

Here it is, a sizable and seismic shift in the hours of our lives—I cannot imagine how we can continue to dismiss the emotional experience that comes with this constant connectedness and paradoxical distance as a byproduct that we must simply accept as-is. I have no good answers for this, as I myself constantly struggle with the desire and need for screentime versus the physical world. I worry, especially, about internet’s tremendous demand on multitasking and my own fidgety attachment to streams of media, emails, and other digital distractions. A tad mystical perhaps, but as a counterbalance to all this, I am a strong believer in Zen— especially its role not just as a religion/philosophy but also its very tangible impact on our brain’s cognitive function and performance. I leave you with this slightly new-agey, but beautiful thing:

When you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do. You will have something remaining which is not completely burned out. Zen activity is activity which is completely burned out.

—Shunryu Suzuki. Zen’s Mind, Beginner’s Mind



  1. I’m so glad you wrote about this. One of the things that attracted me to MOOC is that by nature I’m introspective and I find that too much class time really drains me. At the same time, having no one to share learning with is very de-motivating. I made it through HCI, but it nearly killed me, and I actually turned down some good facetime activities to do it. That said, I’m still glad I have the knowledge and I’m bringing it into other face to face interactions as I join more local technology centered groups, with the kind ofconfidence that a good rigorous course gives you. I’ve started Machine Learning, but I’m just going to be a video watcher this time around. Hope you keep it up though. I look forward to your thoughts.

  2. Hi Juliet, thanks for your comment!

    Btw if you enjoyed HCI, you should check out some of the Stanford HCI seminar videos on ITunesU. They are not instructional but I really enjoy all the experts talking about the work they are doing related to HCI.

  3. Pingback: Thoughtful community management, the code to cracking MOOC’s? | run( ) {

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