Spring semester 2020 began with my five courses offered in the usual classroom setting and ended with all of them converted to an online format. My community college, along with virtually all of higher education, went into complete lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and all of our courses were either canceled or taught remotely from the middle of March until the end of the semester in May.
This abrupt transition was unsettling. Many of my students had never previously taken an online course, and a number of my senior colleagues had never taught one. I had taught the occasional online course for the past decade, so the quick switch wasn’t quite as strenuous for me, despite the need for some fast footwork to keep the semester going. But we all understood that this would be a temporary arrangement, and that instruction would resume in the traditional classroom setting as soon as the pandemic abated.
Or maybe not. Proponents of distance learning began to cite a “black swan” moment, an unexpected windfall that achieved overnight what all their previous huffing and puffing in favor of online education had not been able to do. All of a sudden, remote learning had been installed nearly everywhere. What’s more, it had slipped in through the back door, avoiding the usual scrutiny by program review committees, faculty consultations, departmental hurdles, pilot courses, or any of the usual processes through which major curricular changes are ordinarily vetted. The process may have been messy, but the new online courses are in place, and there are many practical incentives to keep them there.
Online instruction is bound to look attractive to embattled college presidents and other senior administrators facing the present storm of budgetary cutbacks, shrinking revenues, dwindling enrollment prospects, and uncertainty regarding the course of the pandemic. And, as every administrator well knows, the preponderance of distance-learning courses is taught by adjunct instructors, who are much less expensive than full-time, tenured faculty and can be let go at the pleasure of the dean, who will no doubt wield more centralized control in hiring and curricular matters. Online courses also make campus logistics easier: They alleviate the constant juggling for classroom space and ease the parking lot crunch, since remote students don’t need to be physically present at school.
But notwithstanding the bubbly enthusiasm of online education’s supporters – remember the revolutionary telecourses of several decades ago? – I remain a skeptic. And while I admit that I’m a senior professor with a well-grooved classroom approach that I don’t want to change, I think it’s inescapable that distance learning is qualitatively very different than in-person instruction. As a political scientist who has also coached basketball and soccer and taught piano, I remain firmly convinced that many things, very important ones, simply cannot be imparted other than through in-person instruction. Aspiring point guards learning the art of the jump shot or keyboard musicians seeking to master a composer’s dynamics need the close interaction of a coach or instructor. Similarly, students in my courses need to be in the classroom if they’re going to grasp the essentials of slippery concepts such as due process of law, the social contract, or just war theory. In the classroom, I can easily see the curled lips and furrowed brows of confused or puzzled students; I can discern the tone of questions and direct the rapid-fire discussion that often ensues as a class wrestles with novel and difficult ideas.
None of this typically occurs in online courses, even those that allow face-to-face communication between myself and my students, most of whom choose to remain unseen and silent. Online discussions are far more difficult to generate, and students working remotely are far more prone to the easy distractions of gazing at Facebook or online chats with friends. Missed assignments, absences, course failings, and attrition rates are also significantly higher. Many students increasingly are glaringly unprepared for college-level study, especially in reading comprehension and writing. And except for the occasional – make that rare – accomplished autodidact, they also lack self-discipline and time-management skills, deficiencies inevitably magnified outside of the highly structured formal classroom setting.
To this I’d add the curious fact that so many students, notwithstanding my cautions to the contrary, doggedly assume that remote courses are intended to be less demanding than their counterparts in traditional classrooms. The mistake of enrolling in online courses leaves them with wasted time and onerous debts.
There are also serious problems with academic integrity violations, notwithstanding assurances by online vendors that new – and expensive – technology is fail-safe. It’s still easy to monitor in-class exams, but nearly impossible to do the same for distance courses. There’s simply no way to know whether one or more students are seated in the same room comparing notes and team-writing exam questions intended to be answered individually. I can’t count the number of times that two or more students have submitted the same answers to exam or essay questions or, as happened several times this semester, plagiarized the book reviews they deferred submitting until the due date. These forms of cheating are usually easy to detect, but they occur more frequently, a constant and elusive problem in remote courses. A partial solution has been to require distance course students to come to campus to take some or all of their exams, but that doesn’t work for everyone.
Objections like these probably won’t matter much: online-education enthusiasts get even more fired up when they hear them. I think, therefore, that we are going to get more technology in many academic precincts, and probably a lot more in some, especially community colleges. That will make some people happy, such as the tech companies that cash in by selling online programs. It will also have great appeal to typically inattentive college governing boards eager to spend the money, beguiled by “innovative strategies for the future” that make them feel they’re keeping up with the latest trends. It’s also bound to please anxious administrators looking for a quick fix that also extends their domains and increasingly marginalizes faculty.
But if you’re among those who believe that American higher education is in serious decline, I doubt that you’ll see any significant uptick in improved educational outcomes. It’s much more likely that they’ll get worse – much worse, I’ll bet.