Is online teaching a meaningful way to study? Students and educators are about to form fresh, new opinions on the matter, and our colleges and universities will change as a result. 

Higher education institutions across the nation have shifted to remote instruction, to keep their students both safe and on track toward graduation in the midst of a global emergency. However, some students have asked their schools to have their tuition discounted, because they believe a virtual classroom is inferior to the real thing.

When one group of students, at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, made such a request, they received an email from Tisch dean Dean Allyson Green rejecting it. Her message included, as a consolation, a video of her dancing to R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” All indications are that the gesture was received poorly. 

Cynics will claim the dean’s email symbolizes American colleges dancing around issues relating to their future. Still, her actual case, as has been reported, should make perfect sense: Tuition money pays for the salaries of staff and faculty and for significant permanent overhead that doesn’t vanish during a lockdown.

Consider, too, what life is like at the the other end of the spectrum. Liberty University two weeks ago announced an intention to stick with in-person instruction, prompting cries from local and state officials that this represented a health hazard. Students protested Liberty’s position, one senior telling the Washington Post, “I think it’s gross.” The school relented a few days later and agreed to move most of its classes online. However, it still chose to keep its campus open, welcome students back to dorms, hold certain classes in-person, and ask teachers to maintain office hours in order to provide students with the personal interaction they pay for, pandemic be damned.

In essence, colleges are making tradeoffs between safety and solvency, just like every business and every household in America. But the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t controversy also illustrates the awkward, ongoing development of online education. About eight or nine years ago many higher education experts, financial analysts and political pundits predicted a full revolution, raving about how free online classes (MOOCs, or massively open online courses) from a few top colleges might soon put most of their peers out of business. 

By 2014, Dan Friedman reported in TechCrunch that “that revolution fizzled.” As Friedman noted, “Only half of those who signed up [for MOOCs] watched even one lecture, and only 4 percent stayed long enough to complete a course. . . . The MOOC providers argue that completion of free courses is the wrong measure of success, but even a controlled experiment run by San Jose State with paying students found the courses less effective than their old-school counterparts.”

During that time, I worked at a leading West Coast university and helped articulate a nuanced approach to online education. We talked about how new technology would make graduate education more accessible to millions of professionals who could benefit from additional training or a career pivot. We also emphasized that such degrees wouldn’t be provided for peanuts, because quality online education requires considerable infrastructure of its own. 

But we also insisted that, for a four-year undergraduate education, the traditional model was best. In-person instruction on a residential campus provided a crucial, lifelong intellectual and social foundation. Technology could enhance that experience but not replace it, we said. 

That belief, common at America’s universities, has been tossed back in their faces as they work to move students online. Yet, again, this is being done to keep students on track with as little disruption as possible during an impossibly complex global emergency.

There is an added complication: Instructors must adapt on the fly and improvise how they deliver content and connect with students. Some experts fear that, done poorly, virtual instruction in the coming months will turn a whole generation off from realizing the full promise of remote learning. 

But it’s just as possible that this grand national experiment, though launched hastily under imperfect conditions, will lead some to wonder why online teaching hasn’t been tried sooner on a large scale. 

For years, I was a skeptic regarding the supposed existential threats that traditional college campuses faced. I argued here and elsewhere that higher education’s critics didn’t appreciate the genius of a university model that has endured for eight centuries, through plagues, civil wars and revolutions.

Yet, at last, the combination of technological, social and health factors may finally force matters. Even if in-person instruction remains the most sought-after form of higher education, more alternatives are likely to rise up. And even the in-person experience may need to evolve. “To a certain extent, higher education has been living in a bubble that exempts it from the typical industry dynamics of systematic cost reductions through operational efficiencies,” Paul N. Friga, a business professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, wrote last week in the Chronicle of Higher education.

In any case, colleges are experiencing heat and pressure on all sides. This can produce gemstones over the course of the coming years. But the seismic changes involved will spell trouble for institutions who lack the resources or will to adapt. 



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