COVID-19 and Online Education’s Stealth Expansion

Last spring semester began with my five courses offered in the usual classroom setting and ended with all of them converted to an online format. My community college, along with virtually all of higher education, went into complete lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and all of our courses were either canceled or taught remotely since the middle of March.

This abrupt transition was unsettling. Many of my students had never previously taken an online course, and a number of my senior colleagues had never taught one. I had taught the occasional online course for the past decade, so the quick switch wasn’t quite as strenuous for me, despite the need for some very fast footwork to keep the semester going.

I was happy to have the online option: This was the only possible fallback in the circumstances imposed by the coronavirus and it enabled us to complete the semester and give the students a modicum of what they paid for. Most of us—faculty, students and, it seemed, administrators—saw this makeshift arrangement as temporary: Come the fall semester, or whenever the epidemic abated, we would return to our classrooms where most of our courses would be offered. That seemed to be the preference of nearly all of my students, many of whom took the trouble to offer unsolicited comments indicating how decidedly unsatisfactory they found the online experience to be. I’ll be eager to return to the classroom as soon as possible, hopefully in the fall semester.

Many other schools, however, remain hesitant: Timothy White, Chancellor of the immense California State University system, announced in May that nearly all courses at all 23 CSU campuses would remain online through the fall semester, due to the possible return of the COVID-19 epidemic. Many others, especially community colleges, also indicated that most courses would continue to be conducted remotely, at least through the end of 2020. And as we head into the fall semester, a number of major schools, such as Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, have abruptly reversed course and returned to exclusively online instruction following local surges in coronavirus infections. Similar to the frantic scramble last March, the present, rapid shift to online instruction seemed the best short-term contingency alternative and a temporary remedy to keep course instruction afloat until the crisis abates.

Or maybe not. As Goldie Blumenstyk recently ventured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the COVID-19 crisis may have presented proponents of online education with an unexpected windfall, a “black swan” moment worth more than all of their previous huffing and puffing in favor of the wider use of remote learning technology.

As a career community college professor and an obdurate skeptic of online instruction, I unfortunately have to agree: This may indeed be the “black swan” event that in January would have seemed fanciful, the “teachable moment” that remote learning proponents could not have contrived, but which has dropped out of the sky and completely altered the academic landscape. Whatever the educational effectiveness of online instruction—which we ought to talk about, but aren’t—it’s bound to look very attractive to embattled college presidents and other senior administrators facing the present perfect storm of budgetary cutbacks, shrinking revenues, dwindling enrollment prospects, and uncertainty regarding the course of the coronavirus epidemic. Add to all of this the frantic scramble to continue offering programs that are “attractive and affordable” and you’ve found the perfect solution to the perfect storm: shift to online-only instruction.

Students can continue their educations remotely without health concerns by simply enrolling and staying home. Never, never could online education enthusiasts have imagined that so many academic programs would be converted literally overnight, and in a bum’s rush at that. Proponents concede that the process has often been messy, but at least the online conversion has taken place. What’s more, it’s slipped in through the back door: no need for program review committees, faculty consultations, departmental hurdles, pilot courses, or any of the ordinary processes usually mandatory for major curricular reforms. The new online courses are in place, and the practical incentives to keep them there will be increasingly attractive.

Well prior to the current pandemic, many schools saw PR value in touting their state-of-the-art, high-tech, “innovative future-oriented teaching strategies,” which will figure more prominently with the shift to expanded online instruction. And, as every administrator well knows, the preponderance of distance learning courses is taught by itinerant adjunct instructors, who are much less expensive than full-time, tenured faculty and can be let go at the pleasure of the dean, who will no doubt wield more centralized control in personnel hiring and curricular matters. Online courses also make campus logistics much easier: They alleviate the constant juggling for classroom space and ease the parking lot crunch, since remote students usually have no need to be physically present at school.

And yet I remain an entrenched skeptic of online instruction and can see only a limited role for it in the wide scheme of things. Its eager promoters recall the bubbly enthusiasm for telecourses three decades ago, which were similarly touted as the revolutionary transformation in higher education we’d all been hoping for. I’ll easily concede that my resistance to this latest wave of the future is partly attributable to the fact that I am a senior faculty member with a well-grooved pedagogical approach that I simply don’t want to change. But having made that admission, I also don’t think that online courses are anywhere close to working the magic that proponents would like us to believe. Many students, often seriously underprepared for college, opt for online courses as they might go for fast food: It’s quick, convenient, and doesn’t impinge on their personal schedules as a classroom course would.

But the formal classroom is actually what most of the students I encounter urgently need, well removed from the easy distractions of working at home or gazing at Facebook rather than focusing on an assignment. It’s for the latter reason that I completely ban laptops and smart phones in my classroom, and I easily can imagine how much stronger the challenges to mental concentration are in an un-proctored setting. The classroom also facilitates group discussions, new friendships, and group study for exams that aren’t possible in online courses. On campus, students are also more likely to build “social capital”: the network of acquaintances, personal connections, interview possibilities, guest lecturers, etc. that are largely unavailable in the isolation of online learning.

Beyond all of this, however, is the simple fact that distance learning is qualitatively very different than in-person instruction. As a political scientist who has also coached basketball and soccer and taught piano, I remain firmly convinced that there are many things, very important ones, that simply cannot be imparted other than through in-person instruction. Aspiring point guards learning the art of the jump shot or keyboard musicians seeking to master a composer’s dynamics need the close interaction of a coach or instructor. Similarly, students in my political theory course need to be in the classroom if there’s going to be any chance that they grasp the essentials of something like Rousseau’s beguiling doctrine of the General Will of the People.

It’s not an easy task in any case: At first blush, it’s an idea that seems so “democratic.” Yet it also carries a striking contradiction which requires that certain members of the community, often a majority of them, will have to be “forced to be free” in any number of instances. In the classroom, I can easily see the curled lips and deeply furrowed brows that this idea generates, one that requires so much discussion time to make clear. There are always lots of questions, prolonged puzzlement, and sustained argument over exactly what the author intended. We usually do get there, but it takes a while.

Not so when I’ve attempted to examine the General Will online, however: the give-and-take, the frequent follow-up questions, and the indispensable, strategic repetition of key aspects of Rousseau’s political doctrines aren’t possible from the computer. I can’t see any faces or discern the tone of questions, and the kind of simultaneous, often rapid-fire small-group discussions which are so essential to the learning process won’t take place. Online group chats, which are usually hard to arrange in any case due to student scheduling variations, simply aren’t the same, no matter which way you try. In a class which meets at a set day and time, I can continually remind students face-to-face about approaching due dates and missed assignments or discuss possible research paper topics. They’ll hear my voice and see my concern. In online courses, I also post frequent reminders, but students will only see them if they log in, and even then miss them anyway.

There are also major, ongoing problems with academic integrity violations, notwithstanding assurances by online vendors that new—and very expensive—technology is fail-safe. It’s still very easy, as always, to monitor in-class exams, and nearly impossible to do the same for distance courses. There’s simply no way to know whether one or more students are seated in the same room comparing notes and team-writing exam questions intended to be answered individually. I can’t count the number of times that two or more students have submitted the same answers to exam or essay questions or, as happened several times this semester, plagiarized the book reviews they deferred until the due date. These forms of cheating are usually very easy to detect, but the fact that they occur more frequently is a constant, and so far, ineffectively addressed problem among students studying from a distance. I also have to think that it reflects the fact that so many of our students—as a community college, we have open admissions—are seriously unprepared for college and can’t resist what appears to be the easiest alternative. A partial solution has been to require distance course students to come to campus to take some or all of their exams, but many protest that they are in the course precisely because they can’t come to campus, or simply don’t want to.

It’s no surprise to me either that online courses continue to rack up prohibitive attrition numbers, often above 50%. This is because the mode of instruction by definition requires a level of personal motivation and time management skill that most students don’t have. Disciplined autodidacts usually do very well, but they’re typically few, especially among incoming freshmen.  Many schools now provide not only remedial courses in reading and writing, but pre-remedial courses in the usually unsuccessful effort to raise student skill level to the remedial bar. Such students, needless to say, usually don’t make the cut, and enrolling in online courses will simply burden them with still more wasted time and debt.

In addition—despite my frequent, bright red warnings to the contrary—it is the common assumption that online courses are intended to be less academically demanding than traditional classroom offerings. It’s a frequent complaint in student evaluations and resembles what you would expect to hear at the customer service desk in a department store. Academic rigor has never been terribly popular, of course, but it seems to be even more resented as a component of distance learning. Unfortunately, adjunct instructors insecure about their jobs, junior faculty hoping to gain tenure, and administrators eager to increase graduation rates (“success”) are especially inclined to yield to student complaints; the watering down of academic standards and course content will inevitably follow, as it already does with regular classroom courses. I’m not impressed by surveys purporting to demonstrate that students in online courses perform as well or better than those in regular classroom settings, because that isn’t saying a great deal. Standards in all aspects of higher education continue to decline, and surveys illustrate that many students in either type of course are glaringly ill-prepared. The difference is that those deficiencies are far less likely to be corrected online, where students are expected to sink or swim on their own steam.

Objections like these probably won’t much matter: online education enthusiasts simply get even more fired up when they hear them. I think, therefore, that we are going to get more technology in many academic precincts, and probably a lot more in some, especially community colleges. That will make some people very happy, such as the tech companies that cash in big time selling online programs. It will also have great appeal to typically inattentive college governing boards eager to spend the money, beguiled by the “innovative strategies for the future” that make them feel they’re keeping up with the latest trends. It’s also bound to please anxious administrators looking for a quick fix that also extends their domains and increasingly marginalizes faculty.

But if you are among those who believe that American higher education is in serious decline, I doubt that you’ll see any significant uptick in improved educational outcomes. Much more likely is that they’ll get worse. And I’ll bet much worse.


Image: Coolcaesar, Public Domain

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Glenn Ricketts

Glenn Ricketts is Public Affairs Officer at the National Association of Scholars.

2 thoughts on “COVID-19 and Online Education’s Stealth Expansion

  1. Very good questions. The admin takes all that money spent on residential colleges and converts it to their agendas. Why should students want that? It is time to starve the system of money, then perhaps start over and perhaps not. But the waste that’s going on now isn’t even fun for students.

    By the way you’ve got me, an engineer, interested in learning about Rousseau’s concept of the “General Will”. It seems that by adroit verbal maneuverings Rousseau manages to associate individual “freedom” with the totalitarianism he would impose on many. It mirrors propaganda I’ve even seen in this country, and others are famously worse. But I’ve had a lot more education and experience than your community college students.

  2. The real question here is how much longer the largess will continue.

    The bottom line is that higher ed, as we know it, really exists for two purposes: degree credentialing and mate selection. That’s what people are paying for, and everything else, no matter how valuable, is largely irrelevant.

    The job credentialing started to disappear 40 years ago and now we have people with doctorates driving dump trucks — the college degree is no longer the ticket to the good life that it once was, while the trades become increasingly lucrative.

    And then the mate selection — the parties and the rest. (Does anyone remember the “freshman mixers” and what academia was like in the 20th Century? When young, cisgendered, heterosexual couples fell in love — often getting married shortly after graduation….)

    Over the past few decades, increasingly fascist administrators have increasingly stomped on these events, and now they are outright verboten. So why would you want to go — and why would you want to pay all the money?

    Think like a pragmatic young person here — what is the value of knowing anything about Rousseau’s concept of the General Will when it will neither get you the job interview nor through the awkward first date with the person you are really interested in? Much of this is a result of academia having disgraced itself over what are now three generations, but what is the tangible reward of knowing anything about the General Will?

    More importantly, why would you want to go deeply into debt to learn about it when there is no tangible reward — but very tangible loan payments…

    This is what Allan Bloom was warning about 45 years ago, and now it’s come to pass, and academia is going to have to live with it. Such as academia survives, and I don’t think it will…

    And why should it? Who — not benefiting from its largess — still values it?

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