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Is online teaching a wasteland of impersonal interaction, dehumanizing rote learning and impoverished communication? Or is it education’s holy grail, equalizing opportunity and access, opening up classrooms to the masses, and now ensuring that the world can continue to be educated while a pandemic closes public spaces, including schools and universities?

The COVID-19 crisis is presenting facets of online education that few had ever envisioned: some combination of university life support and new models of connectedness. Last month, thousands of universities around the world returned from spring break entirely online. At Rice University, three undergraduate classes were entirely online at the beginning of the semester. That number rose to over 1,900 the Monday after spring break. During the same period, the University of Pennsylvania moved more than 4,000 courses online. These numbers are more the rule than the exception.

If the move online seems a unique sign of our times, it’s important to remember that the history of remote learning is almost as long as the country’s. Using the tools of the time, the first correspondence course was advertised in the Boston Gazette in 1728, when Caleb Philipps offered to teach shorthand to students anywhere in America by exchanging letters.

By 1873, the first official correspondence school in the U.S. opened, the Society to Encourage Studies at Home. Its mission was to create a network of women teaching women by mail. Founded by Anna Eliot Ticknor, daughter of a Harvard history professor, the society gave women the education that U.S. universities denied them because of their sex. It enrolled women of all classes who were busy with chores at home and offered individually planned courses that fostered constant interactive communications between faculty and students. Over 200 faculty in science, ancient history, literature and modern history, among other disciplines, taught thousands of students over the society’s 24 years of existence.

The society’s mission was to open access to the educationally disadvantaged without compromising personalized pedagogy. In 1892, the University of Chicago adopted its model of engaged correspondence pedagogy, and other universities soon followed.

In the age of mass media, universities like Penn State and the University of Iowa began offering radio courses for credit in the 1920s, and the University of Houston was the first to offer televised classes for credit in 1953. While radio and television courses did not offer the same highly personalized learning experience as the Society to Encourage Studies at Home, these courses were aimed at creating new opportunities for those who couldn’t attend a traditional college.

By the mid-1990s, a few completely online universities created economies of scale that led many to associate online education with dehumanization and predigested teaching modules made for the masses. And the rise of massive open online courses in 2012 further exacerbated the idea that online teaching entailed celebrity professors teaching blockbuster courses to throngs of passive learners.

Alongside the spread of broadcast-style teaching, however, new technologies, extensive research and targeted experiments quietly created a mature field of online learning that fosters interactive, engaged pedagogy -- exactly the kind of pedagogy that Anna Eliot Ticknor delivered to the society’s students, only using the tools of our time rather than hers.

During spring break 2020, while students were away, many U.S. universities did something entirely new. They prepared to offer all of their courses remotely, from biology labs to history lectures to studio art classes. Faculty didn’t have the luxury of time, but even the most reluctant professors have been curious about what they can achieve using tools like Zoom and Kaltura and supported by experts on campus.

The biggest revelations, however, have been about the human not the technical dimension of teaching. While teaching is physically remote, we are learning that it can be much more personal than on-campus teaching. Remote teaching requires us to become more aware of the human condition of our students. When students come to campus, they leave their homes and families largely behind, stepping into a new world where classrooms and dorms obscure the lives they led prior to matriculation. Now we are teaching into the worlds our students have had to return to -- the homes they share with others, or the homelessness of earlier years, or the hostile home environments they escaped from when they came to campus.

And like our students, faculty, too, are revealing what makes us most human. As we fumble with the mute button on Zoom or ask our students for help with video sharing, we expose our incompetency rather than our mastery of the material. As pets, kids and aged parents wander into the virtual classrooms we have created on kitchen tables or in our small home workspaces, students see the tugs on our attention and the challenges we, too, temporarily escape when we come to campus to teach in well-maintained classrooms and hold office hours in well-appointed university offices.

The 21st-century version of the Society to Encourage Studies at Home that we have created this spring appears to be less institutionalized, less curated and less controlled than what came before. It also appears to be more human and more accommodating -- more tailored to the primal rhythms of student and faculty life, to who we really are when push comes to shove. For many, this is a great loss, and for others it is eye-opening. But one thing is clear: we aren’t going back to business as usual any time soon, and education may become more human as a result.

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