If I had to pinpoint exactly when the college where I teach started to flounder, it would have to be when the administration began to fear being “left out” of the cash and enrollment they saw other colleges capturing through online education. It’s a tragedy filled with all the expected characters — misguided, ill-informed bureaucrats, burned-out teachers, false prophets and the ultimate villain, COVID19. My college was shaky in its implementation of online education prior to the pandemic, but its arrival ensured our downfall. While higher education has been slow to adapt to the changes of the digital revolution; unfortunately, in the Covid era, it is now responding erratically and inconsistently
Discussions about improving higher education are often focused on innovative online instruction when we need innovative face to face instruction that meets contemporary student needs. The answer isn’t technology — it’s humanity. The members of the academy need to be interactive and creative teachers. Consider that scene in Dead Poets Society, when Robin Williams has the students rip out the Pritchard scale for poetry. We need to find ways to make the content of our classes comprehensible to anxious students with shorter attention spans — students who are worried about making their way in a complicated and competitive world. The recent Netflix series, The Chair, is uncomfortable to watch because of the classroom truths it portrays, especially when an innovative academic has to play second fiddle to a scholar who rigidly clings to the past.
With the pandemic’s arrival, the cracks in many online education systems within traditional institutions became visible. As faculty scrambled to adapt, schools came up with a model of “video” teaching in real time, mixed in with fully asynchronous classes that were often little more than correspondence courses, depending on the faculty member’s technological expertise. Administrators sent out a clear and appropriate message in March of 2020 — be gentle with the students. In response, we provided flexible deadlines, created alternative assignments, and eased up on our grading.
And students got used to it.
Now, instead of reinstituting pre-pandemic academic policies and enforcing learning outcomes by helping our students return to either face-to-face instruction or fully asynchronous courses, administrators who are frightened by the decrease in enrollment are making really bad decisions. One such outcome is the perpetuation of “zoom” teaching into the Fall of 2022 for fear that unvaccinated students won’t register. “Zoom” teaching was a stop-gap measure, not a permanent solution.
Fully online asynchronous learning has a place in our system. There are certain students who do well in this modality, provided they are intrinsically motivated, have strong time management skills, access to adequate technology and reliable internet. The course should also be properly developed and certified.
It is troubling to hear predominantly white, well-educated professors and administrators talk about how online learning, including “Zoom,” helps our lower-socioeconomic group of students. Why are they deciding what is “good for” people whose lives they may know nothing about? Let’s face it: the privileged will always be able to provide face-to-face college instruction for their children. They will insist upon it! Yet key decision makers in higher education are heading in the dangerous direction of doing what’s right for the “haves” and what’s questionable for the “have-nots” and claiming it is to increase access and equity.
Community college students do not do as well in online courses as they do in F2F courses. Moreover, strong personal connections to faculty members increase completion rates (https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/online-education-and-instructional-technology.html). If these students are ever to break out of the cycle of poverty, they need a strong educational foundation.
These same individuals also know the things we aren’t talking about as openly — students do cheat in online classes, often out of desperation because they struggle in math and science and have poor time management skills. “Out of sight, out of mind” is an operating principle in online education because students often forget or underestimate how much work they have to do. Today’s students experience intense anxiety and the isolation is making it worse, not better. Countless students fail online classes or disappear, their grade point averages go down, they are placed on academic probation, and then lose their financial aid. I don’t hear enough educators talking about this dangerous cycle in their eagerness to embrace “the new normal.”
When asked why they are registering for “video” instruction, many students will talk about being able to play X-box during class, keeping their cameras off so they can go in and out of the class and still be considered present, not having to drive (yet they have cars), saving money on gas, being able to “look up answers,” not having to “look nice,” and believing that the classes are decidedly easier. . One of my students, who is in a face to face class with me and takes others online, admitted she learned more in my class but said, “well, it’s a tradeoff for the convenience so I take the online ones. I really just need the degree.”
Almost all students can clearly articulate why they do better when they are in a face to face class. They cite the following reasons: they can ask a question when it occurs to them, rather than formulate an email question or a post in a discussion board. They get the answer IMMEDIATELY, rather than waiting so long they forget the original question. Their nonverbal behavior alerts their teacher when they are struggling, since many do not feel comfortable raising their hands or going to office hours. They know that when they are in class, that is “their time” to focus on school, because trying to set aside time to focus in their daily lives is so difficult. They are uninterrupted in the classroom, so their primary struggle to pay attention is a little bit easier. They often talk about learning FROM each other, because the questions their peers ask are ones they didn’t realize they had themselves. What’s more, we know when their attention wanders, and there are kind and gentle ways to bring them back. Even better, maybe their minds are wandering because I’m off my game, and I need to change things up! (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2021/08/13/how-does-virtual-learning-impact-students-in-higher-education/)
I’ve taken the bulk of my post-grad courses in the online modality, and learned a great deal, but I am an intrinsically motivated professional educator. I am not a 19 year old undergraduate still searching for my path in life. I found my path precisely because of 8 years of interaction with professors in classrooms — professors who met with me in office hours, challenged my ideas, mentored me, blew me away with their teaching, and also those that left me cold. It was the ones in that last group who teach you what you DON’T WANT, and that’s valid too.
My transformative moments in online courses did not occur because of a discussion board. Rather, the many discussion boards I used taught me that most of my comments did not merit a response from the professor, that they generated several “good point” and “interesting, I agree” comments from my fellow students, and if they were sufficient in length and frequency per week, they earned me an A.
Unfortunately, it is the inconvenient truths that are often left out of the online education discussion. Maybe it’s time to do what is right rather than what is convenient. If we know that the majority of undergraduates do best in a classroom, let’s get them back. It means investing in the right message and spreading the word. It means being honest about not just the ‘pros’ of online learning, but the significant ‘cons’ we don’t like to talk about. Let’s make it safe, let’s make it good and let’s make it happen. That is what our students deserve, even if they don’t know it yet.