In her convocation address, President Martin took online education firms to task.

By Emily Gold Boutilier

[Speeches] President Biddy Martin used this year’s convocation address to challenge the idea that online education is equal to the residential college experience. Last year, she said, she was on a New York Times panel with someone from the online education firm Coursera. As Martin remembered, the executive argued that “the value proposition of higher education is content delivery and a credential.”

“Every day,” Martin told the class of ’18, “we hear a new call for a kind of education that can be scaled and operationalized, and its outcomes counted. Every day another proposal for a college education that requires neither places nor human relationships.”

President Biddy Martin and Dean of Faculty, Catherine Epstein, standing in Johnson Chapel

At the podium in Johnson Chapel, she argued that education “without a sense of place, without sounds and smells and tastes, without the messiness and inconvenience of human relationships, is not an education that we should allow people to promote without resistance.”

Speaking to the first-years, Martin previewed their next four years: “You’re not simply going to be listening to what especially purveyors of online courses now like to call ‘sages on the stage,’ who simply stand in front of you and deliver content.”

She cited the late Amherst English Professor Benjamin DeMott, who wrote, “A good classroom is one in which collaborators enjoy a stretch of intelligently active sympathetic engagement with one another.”

Education of this sort, Martin said, takes “duration in the relationships we build, it takes low student-to-faculty ratios, it is very expensive—and it is life-giving. I know that from my own experience.”

Rob Mattson photo