Much of the work in creating effective online education is focused on the disciplines considered more difficult to put online. Laboratory-based science courses, experiential engineering courses, and discussion-heavy professional training all have all been the subject of examination as to how these traditionally face-to-face fields of study can be effectively put online. The assumption is that humanities courses, with their intensive focus on printed materials, may be the easiest disciplines to study online.
But something has held humanities back. An uneasiness on the part of humanities scholars may be preventing these disciplines from reaching their true online potential. This is the contention of Boria Sax, director of online academic assistance at Mercy College (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.). To address this problem, he has created an online network, H-OEH, aimed at bringing this uneasiness to light and encouraging humanities scholars to take their discipline online.
"Online education is growing very explosively, [but] humanities have been very much underrepresented," says Sax, who has identified three major problem areas that make humanities faculty shy away from taking their courses online. First, "online education tends to be more collaborative" while the humanities are characterized by a "tradition of solitary scholarship," Sax says. Therefore, the online environment may seem to present an uncomfortable challenge to those accustomed to working alone.
Second, Sax identifies a "deep-set nervousness" in the humanities. These disciplines "have been cut back steadily for quite some time," he says, noting that the humanities' "central position in education is not taken for granted as it once was." "There is an uncertainty about the purpose of the humanities. [They] were once thought of as the heart of education, [but now] they have been marginalized," he says. Sax believes that humanities scholars feel under siege, creating this sense of uncertainty of purpose. "Things without immediate vocational [applications] are seen as indulgence," he says. This puts humanities faculty on the defensive, making them suspicious of change.
Finally, Sax contends that the humanities, more than any other set of disciplines, are "tied to the book as a medium." While it may not seem that that the experience of text on a page would be substantially different than that of text on a screen, Sax says that books present a "unique way of organizing the world." A book "poses a problem and builds toward a climax or resolution" in a particular way that humanities faculty have become accustomed to. Their thinking is "tied to the structure of the book" in a way that makes the transition to the online environment difficult.
All of these factors contribute to what Sax calls "a deep, visceral uneasiness with online education and the technology we encounter." As a result "lots of professors sort of freeze up" when confronted with online education. Thawing this freeze is one of the purposes behind H-OEH. The H-OEH Network was created to help quell the unease and examine the problems experienced by humanities professors. "We were hoping if the reasons [for uneasiness] were articulated, they could be addressed," Sax says. He adds that "online education has a great deal of potential for the humanities" if only faculty could increase their comfort level with the delivery medium.
To help the fledgling community develop, Sax frequently interjects topics and questions of a more philosophical nature, sparking discussions about why's of online education more than the how's. For example, he recently posted a copy of an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education by Stanley Fish that addressed religion as the new center of academic discourse. Other discussions have surrounded spirituality and visual literacy in online education.