As a US college professor currently witnessing higher-education institutions try to figure out plans for the fall in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, I am surprised and worried by debates that sound more like curricular discussions on in-person vs. online instruction than planning on how to best deal with the continued health threat.
Pressured by students who threaten to take their money elsewhere if they cannot come back to campus, universities—much like many states with still-ascending curves—are scrambling for ways to reopen imminently.
Online Instruction: Safer, But Not Better?
What we don’t know about COVID-19 is still a lot.
What we do know, however, is clear: At this point there is neither a vaccine nor a reliable treatment.
The virus spreads through personal contact, especially in indoor and close quarters, and situations where activities such as loud speaking generate aerosols.
It can be devastating at any age.
Managing it depends on strict social distancing, nearly impossible to guarantee on college campuses where housing arrangements, dining facilities, libraries, and classrooms—not to mention the forms of socialization characteristic of young adults—are hardly propitious.
Moreover, we know that in many states and countries the pandemic is not yet under control; the massive displacement of college students constitutes a major danger of worsening conditions in areas that have flattened the curve and in the US as a whole.
Based on what we know, the push for in-person fall semesters is, simply put, quixotic.
Institutions appear to be listening—and this is nothing new—to a type of student consumer that “shops” for colleges and regards education as a “product” “purchased” on certain “contract terms.”
Without much pedagogical discussion, online instruction is automatically presumed inferior to in-person instruction. Reluctant to pay for a substandard “service,” some students are thinking of a gap year; others have expressed intentions to transfer either permanently or temporarily (assuming their places will be held) to low-tuition institutions. Remote teaching/learning is not, however, a new and second-rate educational—let alone “business”—model that universities are turning to in a bait-and-switch scheme. It is, at one level, simply an unavoidable adaptation to a serious health emergency.
So Much of College Is Already Online
At a second level, for quite some time there has been no real in-person/online opposition.
Institutions have long had centers focused on integrating technology into teaching, on the principle that it is an essential tool for learning. The “flipped classroom” approach, in which contents are first learned outside the classroom through technology and class time is for collaborative follow-up, has gradually been taking hold to maximize efficiency.
Textbooks have online components, for which students pay extra.
Most college courses are “housed” in management sites through which professors, under fair use laws, deliver written and audiovisual materials—a practice that lowers total textbook costs.
Syllabi are on the sites; assignments and deadlines are posted; exam questions are made available and papers can be submitted, graded, and returned with feedback.
Sites include group and individual mail tools; podcast apps; wikis for group editing; chat and videochat features; research guides; and more. Well-equipped physical classrooms have consoles to access these course sites; students routinely bring laptops to class. Library collections acquire a great number of materials in digital format and digitize others on demand. Course reserves are largely electronic, so that multiple students can access resources simultaneously from their homes.
Advising information is also filed in Registrar-based online systems. Letters of recommendation are signed electronically and uploaded to yet more job and postgraduate school sites.
Students are so used to communicating online that faculty often sit alone during office hours, answering consults sent over email or SMS from just a few blocks away.
Most standard courses meet for approximately three weekly hours. Those hours of face-to-face time are, of course, the very core of higher education, and all the technology finally aims to amplify them.
However, while on-screen classes lack certain intellectual benefits of physical interaction, they are still interactive in real time.
Of course few educators outside specialized online colleges (for which there is a niche) would advocate for a switch to remote education. But ultimately, it is a moot point.
No educators that I know would advocate for personal interaction when the risk is that some participants may become seriously ill.
What Will In-Person Education Be Like During a Pandemic?
The in-person education that can take place under the coronavirus threat may be just as unsatisfying as remote learning.
Those intellectual benefits of physical contact will not magically reappear. Imagine a foreign-language class where everyone is masked and you cannot see their enunciation and facial gestures. Imagine a discussion section where you cannot work in small groups. Imagine a lab where your instructor cannot look over your shoulder to help with a task. Imagine acrylic dividers between students. Imagine having to blend in-person and remote learning anyway because there is no classroom space for social distancing. Imagine having only subsets of students back on campus for shorter periods, because it is unsafe to have them all present at once. Except you will be paying for both tuition and housing.
Many students urging institutions to schedule in-person fall semesters are understandably concerned about the social experience of college. They are probably not envisioning how it will be limited by safety measures.
Imagine not being allowed to share dorm rooms, to socialize in hallways, to have parties, or to venture into the towns or cities outside campus. Imagine quarantines upon arrival, weekly swab/blood testing, new quarantines based on contact tracing. (Imagine trusting universities to manage all that reliably!)
Imagine remaining ready to pack up again immediately because another lockdown is necessary, with the increased spread risk of travel.
Those complaining that online instruction is not what they paid for would be equally unhappy about severe restrictions and the consequent policing.
Yet all these variables are under discussion at institutions caught between the threat of being bankrupted by low enrollments and the financial—and moral—liability of placing their community members in jeopardy.
It is indeed a moral issue to demand that higher-education faculty and staff assume the risks of essential workers.
Essential workers are those crucial to maintaining the supply chain or who provide basic services without which society cannot function.
Outside that circle, governments have been clear in their request to all types of corporations: to the extent possible, facilitate telecommuting.
As it turns out, postsecondary teaching is one of the activities best suited to remote work.
And college faculty are not only a higher-risk group than students, but often responsible for child and elderly care as well. The same applies to the army of maintenance workers that would be required to disinfect after students in residence.
Education is not a product for sale; it is a process in which students engage under the guidance of expert faculty, and which colleges facilitate and certify. In economic terms, if one must, the value of a diploma from an institution (ultimately the product they “sell”) is also unlikely to decrease because that institution provided alternative resources during an epidemics.
In adding online options, colleges are not failing to deliver their goods; they are responding proactively to a crisis.
What Would Students Do?
Students should ask themselves: Am I willing to face challenges and still “do” my education?
If I have access to instruction and support by the same faculty, and receive credit, am I legitimately concerned about the qualitative difference between face-to-face and remote learning?
Institutions polling students would be wise to doubt that all those who say they would not register for a virtual semester would actually give up on timely progress toward their degree, or on their initial choice of college, or on college altogether.
If the health situation is universal, it is additionally unclear how many options may be available to those seeking to transfer.
It would be just as wise to doubt that all students who say they will return to campus will do so: What parents will pay thousands to send their children to a potentially perilous environment?
Without doubt there are also students grateful for the opportunity to advance without having to be on campus, as well as waitlisted students who would welcome a previously denied admission on condition that they agree to online instruction while the emergency lasts. (If I were in that position, I would already be contacting my desired institution.)
Quality Education AND Safety
Everyone is hard-hit by this pandemic. Students will miss out on some college experiences that are unsafe for now; those in the few disciplines where remote instruction is just not possible may have to sit this out.
Institutions will lose money on dorms, dining plans, facilities fees; they may have to provide tuition incentives, and should definitely invest in supporting students who have trouble engaging in remote learning because of precarious home situations.
Faculty are bracing for pay cuts or layoffs, even though their workloads have already increased.
But we are all in this together, and we have all the resources to achieve quality education without risking safety.
Good research is readily available on how to optimize remote learning and make it very rewarding for students.
Competition should be about how to plan realistically—and the sooner the better—for the best virtual semester.
Institutions that do this can go back to in-person the moment it is objectively safe. And those that made tough decisions to protect their communities will emerge from this stronger than those who chose to take needless risk.
*The opinions expressed in this piece are strictly personal, and do not reflect those of Barnard College.
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