As someone who has been involved in distance learning at The Open University for the past fifteen years or so, most recently helping to design the Start Writing courses there which are first level writing courses taught entirely online, I take very seriously the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus’ views on the limitations of distance learning. In a book called On The Internet which deserves to be much better known and more widely discussed, Dreyfus argues that the embodied presence of instructors is a crucial part of learning, and that without this students will be unlikely to progress to the highest levels of expertise and mastery in their chosen subjects. The Open University has always taught using a combination of methods, which includes, in most cases the opportunity for students to attend local face-to-face seminars or residential schools within any degree programme, so even if Dreyfus is correct, his conclusions won’t apply to Open University students. But as more teaching everywhere is being conducted via the internet, his worries are worth thinking about. Unfortunately, because of the book’s title, and its categorisation by the publishers as falling within the realms of Media Studies/Science/Philosophy, many of those interested in the philosophy and practice of education will be unaware of its existence.
In the key chapter ‘How Far is Distance Learning from Education’ Dreyfus distinguishes seven stages of learning. Seven is probably too many stages to take in easily, and I sense that some of these are not sequential but parallel. Also his seventh stage ‘Practical Wisdom’ seems a precondition of many of the other stages too, and sits uneasily here.
Dreyfus’ analysis of learning into these seven stages is subjective, based on his wide teaching experience, and presumably he would acknowledge that there are other meaningful ways of carving up the learning process. Nevertheless, his stages give a framework for thinking about what is important in education. They certainly, for the most part, make sense when thinking about how someone becomes a philosopher, for example (not surprisingly, as Dreyfus is a philosopher himself, and most of his teaching experience is in this field).
Stage 1: Novice
The novice typically gets instruction in the basics of a subject. In the Humanities lectures are still the most popular means to deliver this instruction. Students at this stage are principally consumers being taught simple rules and being provided with some factual content.
Stage 2: Advanced Beginner
Students need to understand relevant contexts for the rules and facts they learn. At this stage students learn to make some sense of what was mere information. The instructor typically becomes a kind of coach, ‘who helps the student pick out and recognise the relevant aspects that organise and make sense of the material’ (p.35). Ideally the instructor explains and picks out important features of cases as they come up in the course of learning.
Stage 3: Competence
A competent student is able to select rules or perspectives appropriate to the situation. The learner takes on responsibility for the angle he or she takes. With this comes the risk of failure as well as the emotional and intellectual elation of success. Instructors act as role models at this stage: if the tutor is engaged emotionally in the learning process, he believes the students will be more likely to adopt this learning style (which he believes is appropriate – and he is surely right about this).
Dreyfus believes that online teaching is unlikely to help students move beyond this third stage of competence because of the absence of face-to-face embodied teaching.
Stage 4: Proficiency
At this level students have made sufficient ‘situational discriminations’ (as well as having emotional involvement with the learning process) to recognise the problem that needs to be solved. They still have to figure out what the answer is to the problem and how best to approach it. Here Dreyfus asserts that the only way to achieve such proficiency seems to be through face-to-face teaching:
‘Proficiency seems to develop if, and only if, experience is assimilated in this embodied, atheoretical way. Only then do intuitive reactions replace reasoned responses.’ (p.40)
Dreyfus is right that achieving what he calls ‘intuitive reactions’ is an important (and often unrecognised) element of learning. Anyone studying philosophy who does not achieve this level of proficiency will struggle to write coherently about the subject, given the numerous possible approaches to any issue. This kind of discrimination is vital to developing as a thinker: the ways of approaching cases, theories, moves in argument, need to become second nature if a student is to handle the complexities of the subject and progress. Yet, his assertion that such proficiency seems unachievable without face-to-face tuition is premature given how young online tuition is, and how innovative uses of synchronous and asynchronous interactive messaging, online presentations etc. can provide many of the features of risk and emotional involvement that he believes to be crucial to the learning process at this level. At worst the jury is out.
Stage 5: Expertise
The expert, in contrast to the proficient performer, sees what needs to be achieved, and, because of his or her vast repertoire of ‘situational discriminations’ also can see instantly how to achieve it. Dreyfus points out that an expert is capable of making far more refined and subtle discriminations than a merely proficient performer. The expert then tailors method and approach to the situation based on this refined discrimination and ability to break down cases to subclasses requiring specific responses:
‘This allows the immediate intuitive situational response that is characteristic of expertise.’ (p.42)
Yes. That seems right. That is what experts do. They respond intuitively, but based on discriminatory experience (and, also, though Dreyfus omits mention of this, on aptitude and sensitivity, which may not be teachable). A philosopher at the expert level is capable of judging appropriate features of a case or example almost instantly and then providing argument, analysis, counterexample, development, as appropriate. To the awe-struck observer, seeing an expert at work is almost mysterious: how did that person think so quickly and see what was at stake so perceptively? The process of coming to think like that must involve much of what Dreyfus describes (though merely going through the motions here is unlikely to get most people to this level of expertise…aptitude, as with learning a musical instrument to a high level, is key in philosophy too).
Stage 6: Mastery
This seems to me the highest level that Dreyfus describes, though he does go on to write about ‘Practical Wisdom’ as the seventh level. Mastery involves developing your own style. As Dreyfus points out, in music (and by implication, in other subject areas too) this almost always involves learning from an acknowledged master (actually he seems to say that it always involves this: ‘If you are training to become a performing musician, you have to work with an already recognized master’ (p.45) – this is probably too strong). But musicians have learnt that following one master is not usually as effective in developing mastery as following a range of masters sequentially. Learning from one master tends to produce imitators rather than creative individuals with their own style:
‘Working with several masters destablizes and confuses the apprentice so that he can no longer simply copy any one master’s style and so is forced to begin to develop a style of his own. In so doing he achieves the highest level of skill. Let us call it mastery.' (p.46).
Dreyfus thinks such mastery beyond the read of the distance learner.
Stage 7 ‘Practical Wisdom’
This is the assimilation into a cultural style. This stage seems different from the others described. Dreyfus is keen to stress that cultural style, which is ‘what makes us human beings and provides the background against which all other learning is possible’ (p.48), is passed on by embodied beings. Its inclusion in this list is simply part of his description of what he believes must be absent from distance learning. It is at least arguable that cultural style is transmitted at some level by all manifestations of a culture, including distance learning.
This summary of the stages of learning that Dreyfus provides is inevitably sketchy. But Dreyfus’ emphasis on the ways in which those learning a subject such as Philosophy are ultimately moving towards the level of mastery where their range of experience provides them with the foundation for making judgments and decisions about approach or strategy without conscious thought is important. Philosophers have devoted a great deal of attention to the question ‘What is Philosophy?’ but far less to the question ‘How do you become a Philosopher?’ Dreyfus’ book gives one framework for understanding that, even if it is flawed in some respects.
To his credit, when I interviewed him for the BBC Radio 4 Archive Hour programme on autodidacts ‘I’d Like to Teach the World To…’ he acknowledged that distance learning via the internet might have more educational potential than he allowed in his book…There is an interesting discussion of Dreyfus' book on Spiked.