Disappointed students sued more than 50 colleges about the transition, arguing that the quality of their education had deteriorated when face-to-face instruction was suspended. I commented that the students were surely right and that distance learning is indeed inferior to traditional modes of teaching.
Since I wrote that commentary, however, I taught a course as an adjunct at my former university, and I was pleasantly surprised by the experience. I delivered this course using two distance-learning tools: Moodle and Zoom.
With Moodle, I was able to post all my reading materials and communicate with my students about their assignments. Using Zoom, I met with a small group of students in "real-time," and we were able to discuss court cases very much as if we were all in the same room.
This positive experience with distance learning caused me to revise my views. I now believe that most colleges can maintain the overall quality of their instruction, even if they are forced to rely heavily on distance learning in the upcoming fall semester. But I still believe something will be lost if universities rely too heavily on technology.
Zoom, I learned, is an excellent way to meet with small groups of students who are in different places. I think seminars and small-class settings taught through Zoom or a similar product can continue with little loss in quality.
And it seems to me that large lecture classes will not be adversely affected if professors give their lectures by video. After all, one of my first classes as an undergraduate more than 40 years ago had 700 students enrolled. I was given an assigned seat at the back of the auditorium and could hardly identify the gender of my professor. Delivering video lectures may actually be an improvement over having instructors drone on to hundreds of students in a cavernous auditorium.
I am still skeptical of so-called asynchronous teaching, where the professor presents students with canned instructional units without ever having any personal interaction with them. In my view, this kind of education amounts to little more than a correspondence course.
I am also skeptical about distance-taught instruction that assesses student performance through pass-fail grading. It has been my observation that all rigor goes out the window when a professor is grading students on a pass-fail basis. It is almost impossible to fail anyone when the assessment standards are so relaxed, and it is absolutely impossible to reward students who excel in their classes.
And I continue to be opposed to academic programs that are delivered entirely online. After all, who believes that an undergraduate degree, a master's degree. or a doctoral degree that is offered entirely online is in any way comparable to an academic degree taught traditionally on an actual college campus?
I wish all the colleges well as they adjust their academic programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I think most of them can deliver instruction this fall through various distance-learning formats without too much loss in quality.
Nevertheless, most students choose their colleges based on their perception of what their campus experience will be like. They don't just sit in classes, after all. They live in residence halls, interact with other students, and immerse themselves in all kinds of extracurricular activities. Some percentage of students will not go to college this fall if they can't have a traditional college experience.
Most commentators predict a significant enrollment decline if academic life doesn't get back to normal (or at least close to normal) by the fall semester. I think they are right. And the colleges that will suffer the most are the small liberal arts colleges and the regional public institutions.
|This guy should be teaching online.