As the pandemic wanes, a chorus of commentators are offering predictions about what mark it will leave on higher education—with some forecasting colleges collapsing and others seeing increasing alliances with commercial partners. Most anticipate the growing centrality of online learning in university life.
As a longtime proponent of online higher education, I thought I’d take a stab at imagining a couple of effects digital education might have on teaching and learning in the college classroom.
Liberating campus-bound faculty.
Of the many remarkable things about online learning—its principal benefit—is to give students the freedom to learn almost anywhere. And that goes for faculty members, too, who might now have access to new opportunities to teach remotely for institutions around the globe—and let colleges hire online faculty with attractive strengths who happen to live far away.
That has already started to happen during the pandemic, with so many faculty and staff working and teaching from home. Since it has made no difference to their students where they were living, some, quite privileged, took off for country homes or slipped away to vacation spots, continuing to teach online as if they were at a nearby campus.
Years ago, when I was head of Stevens Institute of Technology’s blended learning program in Beijing, the school’s faculty taught online mostly from our Hoboken campus, while the students lived in China, and many took the opportunity to teach virtually while traveling in Europe or Asia.
Just think of the intellectually exciting possibilities. It’s common today for colleges to invite professors from other institutions to deliver distinguished lectures on campus. Apart from fees paid to the visiting faculty, serious investments are required to fly them across the country or from abroad and to house and feed them for, say. three or four days. In an online world, all that’s needed is a stipend to deliver the talk and a way to project a Zoom feed. Forget flights, hotels and the rest.
Similarly, when schools identify eminent faculty at other institutions who they are eager to invite as visiting professors for a semester or an academic year, it has not been an easy calculus, with travel, housing and other expenses to be covered. Nor is it a simple matter for invited faculty, despite the distinction of being asked, to accept the opportunity if they must leave family and work behind for a long stretch. Luckily, online, these inconvenient barriers collapse.
And as a result of the pandemic, remote teaching arrangements like these may have already started. Some colleges employ faculty with uncommon expertise to teach partly at their home college and partly overseas, spending one semester in the U.S. and the next in, say, Sweden or Bulgaria. With travel abroad severely restricted, globetrotting faculty now teach online to their students abroad.
During the pandemic, the scholarly community has been forced to abandon its addiction to attending in-person conferences at far-flung destinations. As a result, instead of adding to the global carbon crisis, researchers have learned to adjust, advancing their slides digitally at virtual academic meetings as if they were engaging in digital auditions for remote college instruction.
The potential impact on global faculty recruitment for the nation’s colleges and universities is fairly compelling. Consider how intellectually electrifying it might be for an underfunded college to recruit an eminent professor from a top-ranked school abroad to teach remotely—to deliver a lecture, attend a daylong seminar, or teach a semester-long course.
But in our new, more-digital academic world, will search committees feel free to offer faculty positions to candidates who they can’t take to lunch after listening to their virtual job talks?
There are down-sides, however. The likely result is that many new online faculty hires will not be moving along the tenure track, but will—like most online instructors today—enter the halls of academe as contingent workers, adjuncts with little job security. Though it’s unclear how many adjuncts teach online, from my own experience, and from my knowledge of hiring practices at for-profit and other schools with large online student enrollments, the number of full-time faculty teaching online is very thin, and at some colleges, very likely close to zero.
Teaching and learning in unbounded time.
Bound by four walls, the campus classroom is not only a physically enclosed space but one confined by time, limiting interaction to a defined period. Rather than using student learning as the measure of academic attainment, the credit-hour arbitrarily makes time the basis for judging achievement. In higher ed, the credit-hour is generally defined as an hour of faculty instruction plus two hours of homework performed weekly over a fifteen-week semester. A course that meets for three, fifty-minute periods per week during a fifteen-week semester is listed as a three-credit course.
Despite online courses delivered in the cloud, accreditors and state education agencies hold digital classes to the same archaic standard, requiring remote programs to follow the same number of credit-hours as on-campus courses, ignoring the fact that faculty and students online can easily leap over barriers freely in an academic space-time continuum.
A number of years ago, in an attempt to update the credit-hour to align with modern practice, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching—the same institution that first introduced the credit-hour—spent two years studying an overhaul in response to wide criticism of its value in contemporary teaching and learning. But in a parochial move, the organization stuck with tradition, keeping the credit-hour exactly as it was first established more than a century ago.
Removing the limits of credit-hour rules would give faculty and students the option of teaching and learning without time constraints. I can envision catalogs dispensing with courses scheduled on a particular day and hour of the week, noting only that the course is held in “spring” or “fall,” giving instructors and learners freedom to set their own academic schedules.
For faculty and students who participate in online classes conducted asynchronously, boundary-free time is old news. On their own and in their own time, students watch pre-recorded video lectures and demonstrations, enter discussion boards and work together in groups employing collaborative software tools day and night.
A couple of years ago, I taught an online course at The New School, a small liberal arts college in Manhattan. Knowing the bell wouldn’t ring, my virtual students engaged in discussions long past the clock, participating in forums for hours, occasionally over days. Conventional instructors often limit class discussion the minute the bell rings. Why not find a way to make the flexibility allowed by online instruction an official part of the academic calendar?