A crisis, as the saying goes, is a terrible thing to waste, and the tech utopians have wasted little time in promoting the move to online teaching as a permanent solution to higher ed’s problems.
Tal Frankfurt, a technology consultant and contributor to Forbes magazine, proposed that the emergency replacement of traditional classrooms with virtual ones should “be viewed as a sort of ‘bypass’ button’” for the usual snail’s pace of educational change. We’re all online now, Frankfurt says -- let’s stay there. After all, virtual learning is better because it enables “students to reach greater heights and not be limited by a predetermined set of circumstances.”
Nor is Frankfurt alone. In a recent op ed in The New York Times, Hans Taparia writes that online education, previously considered a “hobby,” could be the silver bullet that rescues higher ed from the financial ravages of the coronavirus pandemic.
Politicians have also climbed on board the train. Jeb Bush announced that online is “the future of learning,” and Governor Andrew Cuomo, with Bill Gates (of course) standing next to him, wondered why we need all these buildings when we have technology? “The old model” of a classroom, the governor opined, is over and done with. It’s time to “reimagine” education with computers and laptops “at the forefront.” While both deal with K-12, the proposal to replace “all these buildings, all these physical classrooms” with virtual spaces applies equally well to higher ed.
But what do students have to say about the differences between online and traditional teaching? Do they look forward to online education as “the future”?
The argument over the relative merits of online versus face-to-face education always runs into this crucial roadblock: students (presuming they pass) do not take the same course twice. Once you take Shakespeare 302, or Chem 101, or Econ 102, you move on.
But thanks to the sudden switch to online teaching in the middle of the semester, students can compare the digital with the analog versions of their classes. What’s more, since each student takes three to five (sometimes more) courses, they experienced multiple modalities of online education, from Zoom meetings to fully asynchronous courses taught via videos and podcasts. For the first time, a student can say, “I took the course both ways, and here’s what I think.” While it’s true that for many, the transition was rushed, don’t underestimate how many profs put together viable online classes that ranged from Zoom to fully synchronous (more on that term below) classes with all the bells and whistles.
To find out their responses, I asked my students to write an evaluation of their experiences with online education. While almost all are English majors, they are the definition of diverse: traditional, nontraditional, male, female, LGBTQ, first-generation college student, not first generation, single parent, person of color, different religions, foreign (one student hailed from Germany), some with a learning disability, and veterans. No doubt I’ve missed a few categories. All, however, are “digital natives,” the generation who are addicted to their phones and screens. So there is no assumed bias against or unfamiliarity with the digital world.
But for all their differences in age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, citizenship and intellectual preparedness, they universally agreed on their evaluation of online learning: they hated it. There is no comparison, they said over and over again, between the two. One student said that she felt like she wasn’t getting 10 percent of the regular class. Another wrote, “I haven’t learned anything since we went online.” (For the record, I asked for and received permission to quote their responses.) “It seemed too easy,” wrote a third. “I did not feel challenged like I had been in the first half of the semester, and I felt the quality of learning had gone way down.” “I watched the lectures posted, but I wasn’t learning the material,” wrote another. All told, moving online caused “a profound sense of loss.”
Part of the problem originated in the enforced idleness caused by the pandemic. With in-person classes canceled, jobs evaporating and shelter-in-place orders, the structure by which many organized their day had disappeared, leaving many students feeling lost and adrift. As one student put, “[I] now lived in a world of uncertainty, with no clear end in sight.” Pre-pandemic, the necessity of showing up at a particular time at a particular place shaped their days and “established an environment in which my focus was tailored completely to my education.” Without the “consistency” of having to show up on, say, Tuesday and Thursday, 11 o’clock, many reported that it was easy to let classes slide and not take them as seriously as before. Plus, for some, there are the distractions of having to live at home, sharing space and computer time with parents and siblings, not to forget pets.
Taking online classes also means that the distractions of the web are right before their eyes. “The major benefit of in-class learning is that the classroom leaves out distractions,” writes one student, but now, “I have the biggest source of gaming, shopping and socializing right in my face.”
However, there is a more profound reason for their dislike of online learning, and ironically, it is online education’s chief selling point.
The major advantage of online learning is asynchronicity, or, “anytime, anywhere learning.”
Lectures do not take place at a specified time, but are recorded as videos or podcasts. Assignments are done on a computer, often graded by a computer. Not being tied to a classroom also means no limitations on enrollment. Class size is no longer limited by room size but can grow to accommodate any number of students.
What this means in practice is that the student takes the class alone. There is no immediate interaction between the professor and the students, no immediate interaction among the students. It’s just a student sitting in front of a screen, and that’s what my students disliked the most: “we basically have to teach ourselves. It’s like paying tuition to watch YouTube videos.”
More than one complained they were not getting their money’s worth: “I do not pay the hefty tuition for online classes”; “I feel for all the students paying thousands and thousands of dollars to attend SDSU when in reality they are stuck behind a computer screen.” A third was more specific: a prerecorded video “is by far the least efficient and beneficial [mode of learning]. Prerecorded videos give students no room to ask questions or engage in class discussion.”
Ironically, students reaffirmed Plato’s criticism of writing over face-to-face discussion. If you ask an inanimate object, in this case, a piece of writing or a painting, a question, Socrates says, you don’t get an answer. Instead, it goes on “telling you just the same thing forever.” Ask a video a question, or a podcast, and you will not get a response. You can’t engage it in dialogue, and as Socrates says, it’s in dialogue -- teasing out of ideas, challenging them, argument and counterargument -- that genuine education happens.
That key point gets reiterated in every response: students missed human interaction. The central difference is that during a regular semester, “the lessons are in person, and not on a screen. This is important because it helps me and other people pay attention when the teacher is in the same room as us. You get more out of what they are saying when you can see their body language, and it’s more a personal experience.”
The transition from face-to-face to online removed the opportunity to learn “from other students,” and breaking into smaller groups or commenting on each other’s writing was no substitute for the real thing. In a traditional classroom, “there is this level of intimacy that just cannot develop in an online setting. The college experience is truly about making human connections. Schools, one student insightfully noted, “are like small towns. There is so much more than just classrooms, and to have classes go online, that takes away so much from the student experience.”
The farther a class got from face-to-face, the less students liked it, and the less they got out of it. Conversely, the closer a class got to approximating the traditional classroom, the better. Students preferred Zoom classes (for all their drawbacks) for two reasons.
First, turning classes into Zoom meetings that started and ended at the same time as the regular class helped “restore some type of balance and structure” to their lives. One student said that she “was grateful for the normalcy that the recurring class meetings” gave her.
But more profoundly, Zoom restored, if in a lesser form, the conversations, the back-and-forth, the human interactions of the traditional classroom. Because students can talk to each other and the professor in real time, “it feels more personal. I found myself more willing to answer and participate.” This student summed it up best:
Some of the best courses I have taken during my time in college have been the ones that are small, and where the professor and students develop a sense of trust with one another. This trust can only be attained by person-to-person contact. There is this level of intimacy that just cannot develop in an online setting. The college experience is truly about making human connections.
God knows, Zoom is not perfect. The sound can be terrible, and there are serious privacy issues. But for all its problems, Zoom helps restore the “human connections” missing from virtual classes, which is why several students said that everyone’s camera should be on during the session. The point is not just to hear, but to see, each other.
Many teachers fear that when the pandemic recedes and normality returns, administrators will try to keep as many classes online as they can. After all, as Bush and Cuomo say, online is supposed to be the future.
But the opposite will likely happen, because most students don’t like online classes. Having gone virtual once, and experienced different modalities, there is no desire, no groundswell, to make the change permanent. If anything, both students and faculty want to get back to the traditional classroom as quickly as possible, now that they have experienced both. To be sure, online teaching has its place, especially for students who could not otherwise attend college, and given the health risks, it’s how we need to teach until there’s either a cure or a vaccine for COVID-19.
But online learning is not the future. Never was. Never will be. It’s just not what students want.