My Take

There's no substitute for the real thing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 March, 2013, 3:11am

First it was the supposed obsolescence of the workplace. Now it's the university classroom. The Western cult of online virtuality is overhyped. It's a good thing it has never caught on in this part of the world. Let's hope it never will.

Many of us wage slaves have fantasised about working at home while earning a regular pay cheque. My kids wonder why they can't connect online to their school and skip classes.

For a long time, beleaguered internet pioneer Yahoo! allowed its workers to do just that - until its new chief executive, Marissa Mayer, put an end to the practice. Now she has become a figure of hate in her own company and vilified by workers around the world who have long cherished the fantasy. But she is right. I am afraid working from home will remain the exclusive privilege of successful poets, novelists, artists - and underemployed people.

A minority of workers can function efficiently anywhere, but most can't. In my line of work, deadlines have far less reality and exert less pressure if you are outside the newsroom, out of the range of screaming editors. Interactions with colleagues, however unpleasant and complaining, are necessary for productivity, concentration and/or just to be kept in the loop.

The same applies to studying at university, that is, attending lectures and seminars. Moocs - massive open online courses - have become all the rage, led by top universities such as Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sure, it's fun to listen to star professors and Nobel Prize winners giving a lecture - occasionally. But to do an entire course online? It gets tedious and most students have neither the stamina nor discipline.

Now, I am not denigrating the worthwhile effort to "democratise" elite education so everyone who is interested has a chance to take part in higher learning. But let's be clear: you are not getting a degree from Harvard, only a certificate, if you make it to the end, which may or may not advance your academic career and employability.

A large part of going to university is about being present on the physical campus, where you interact with professors, peers, odd characters and brilliant minds - to listen, argue, converse and learn. There is no substitute for that.