Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, writes the New York Times that while he’s always found the idea that he’s learning information from his students a little patronizing, there is, actually, an important relationship that he enjoys with those he is teaching.

That relationship is valid and meaningful and, ideally, each class he teaches is a unique event made up of both his lecture and his students’ interaction with that material. That can never happen online.

As he writes:

A large lecture class can also create genuine intellectual community. Students will always be running across others who are also enrolled, and they’ll break the ice with a chat about it and maybe they’ll go on from there. When a teacher hears a student say, “My friends and I are always arguing about your class,” he knows he’s doing something right. From there he folds what he has learned into his teaching, adjusting his course in a fluid and immediate way that the Internet professor cannot easily match.

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.

Granted, learning can certainly still occur in such situations. And many real courses, especially large ones, are essentially an example of the same lecture that’s been delivered by the same professor for years and years. But such courses are an example of bad education.

But what Edmundson is trying to figure out is something crucial to evaluating the real quality of online education, both as it currently exists and as it has the potential to exist. Can online education be superior education? Can it ever be the best form of learning? No, it can’t. As Edmundson explains:

A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates. You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.

The fact that it’s lonely and sterile and intellectually joyless doesn’t mean it won’t happen, of course—there are too many people interested in making sure online education occurs—but there’s no reason for honest critics to pretend online college is just as good as the real thing. It isn’t, and it probably never can be.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer