Fourth Class

Pivoting pandemic pedagogy into action by getting real about online education.

September 16, 2020

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Lee Skallerup Bessette lists the relatively low status of public institutions that provide “robust online offerings” as one of the many reasons academe has not embraced online learning.

These “robust offerings” should advantageously position “fourth-class” institutions in fall 2020 and beyond, but institutions like my own have yet to fully realize the potential they possess because too many faculty harbor fears of a technosolutionism that the pandemic itself has belied.

While educational market disrupters are everywhere now, their TED talk pitches and clever graphics aren’t as suasive in the era of COVID-19, when administrators have to openly admit that academe’s current business model requires face-to-face instruction to justify auxiliary fees. Turns out students expect actual people to guide their progress toward a degree, and they are willing to voice their dissatisfaction if they believe they are being fed technology in lieu of teaching.

Those of us who developed and taught online courses before online was posited as the pandemic solution know that online education is a powerful mode of delivery that can foster varieties of connection that are not possible in physical settings (which can be a boon to some neurodivergent students). We also know that this connection comes with a definite cost, as good online teaching is both resource and labor intensive. The virtue of the global health crisis is that this labor is now visible at a time when the so-called experiment of virtual learning in K-12 graphically underscores inequities in the resources available to differing student populations.

Michael M. Crow, the visionary leader who spent years telling public universities to ask not what their states can do for them, is now all but begging the federal government to fund online education infrastructure. Admittedly, Crow’s admirable call for “digital hubs” in the Politico piece he co-authored with Jeffery Selingo is not some disinterested exercise in civic virtue. His push for investment is implicitly a push for an investment in Arizona State University, the educational juggernaut that got the greatest share of funds from the CARES Act. But this point in and of itself counters the disruptive narrative of cost-efficiency in education. ASU’s numerous business partnerships help to fund wraparound services just as surely as they do strides in educational research. And even this innovative institution has discovered that there are still skills and experiences that cannot be provided remotely, even with the latest advances in software and hardware. (There is a reason why there are still physical labs tied to ASU’s biochemistry degree.) Location still matters in terms of access, as the fanciest of mainframes cannot supply a main campus in an academic desert.

No hub at Arizona State, no matter how well designed, will place the first-generation rural Kentucky students I teach on the right side of the digital divide. (Literacy only goes so far if you do not have stable internet access or good working computers.) Just as no series of recorded lectures or lessons, offered by top researchers in the field, will take the place of the instruction that occurs when teachers interact with students they know (virtually or face-to-face). MOOCs did not replace the university system for the same reason the Khan Academy did not displace K-12. Those excellent materials were supplements that aided, not mechanisms that removed, the necessary connection between teacher and student, because, as Michael S. Roth rightly notes, “critical parts of the experience are lost when the learning community is dispersed.” Now is the time for those of us outside of elite centers and well-endowed institutes to make a case for the students in our schools, and, in so doing, demonstrate that every institute of higher education needs to be a digital hub for its community.

In the midst of the pandemic, as instructional designers, educational technologists and faculty have come together in unprecedented ways to address some of the seemingly insurmountable problems presented by COVID-19, those of us in that fourth class actually have the ability to determine the best tools to achieve the desired learning outcomes for our students outside of market demands and profit margins. And we can do so while we advocate for broader access and lend our voices to student demands for instructional support.

This is necessary because getting real about online education is not getting real about what is online. It is getting real about education. And it is about time that we did just that.

Annie Adams is professor of English at Morehead State University, where she teaches courses in literature and film. She was graduate coordinator when Morehead put its English M.A. online (creating the first generalist online degree program in the nation) and currently serves as the faculty regent on the institution's Board of Regents.

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