Without question, it was the responsible thing to do. A few college leaders even framed their actions as almost heroic. The presidents of Harvard, Stanford, and MIT published an op-ed essay in the New York Times titled "We Lead Three Universities: It's time for drastic action." Yuh think?
Of course, the universities had no choice but to move to online teaching. Unless the colleges want to refund their students for missed instructional time and closed libraries, the coronavirus gave them only one option: immediately switch from face-to-face teaching to online instruction. And this they speedily did.
Jonathan Zimmerman, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, pointing out that the coronavirus outbreak provides a perfect opportunity to conduct research on the effectiveness of online learning. That seems like a good idea.
But a few days later, Thomas J. Tobin, a Wisconsin professor, rebuked Zimmerman in the pages of The Chronicle "Now is Not the Time to Assess Online Learning, " Tobin titled his rebuttal essay. Many professors are not adequately trained for online teaching, Tobin argued, and the "impact of throwing untrained or poorly trained instructors into online teaching" is not good. "The short version," Tobin emphasized: "It ain't pretty, and it ain't effective."
But I agree with Professor Zimmerman. American students have been lab rats for distance learning for more than 25 years. It's time we gave serious thought to what in the hell we are doing to the kids.
The for-profit colleges were the first to get in on the online-learning scam. They figured out that teaching hundreds of students asynchronously is considerably cheaper than teaching a few students on an actual college campus. Who needs all that ivy; all those drafty, neo-gothic buildings; those grumpy, overpaid professors? Who needs all those union-wage cops and custodians, those dorm mothers, a book store?
No, let's persuade pajama-clad kids to just stare at their computers all day in their own apartments. They can pay their tuition online and not show up on campus until graduation day!
Public colleges, alarmed by the competition from the venal for-profits, jumped into online learning as well. Soon online degree programs were being advertised all over the country--especially on urban billboards and public buses.
Now--and this is literally true--an American student can get a bachelor's degree, a master's degree, and a doctoral degree without ever stepping inside a classroom.
And here's the beauty of the New Age when students and teachers don't need to meet. Online education can be just as expensive as face-face-to-face! That's right: you can pay the price of a Harvard education without ever having to put your clothes on in the morning.
Let's return now to the debate between Profesor Zimmerman and Professor Tobin. Notice that Professor Tobin did not argue that we should stop online instruction. In fact, I'm sure he loves it. No, Tobin is merely saying we shouldn't evaluate it right now.
I'm with Professor Zimmerman. Let's see if anyone is getting their money's worth from taking courses in front of their commuters. And why not do it now?
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