Prejudice against online learning is forcing US campuses to reopen

Universities and colleges are having to promise physical classes to protect enrolments, says Joseph Guarneri

August 12, 2020
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In the post-pandemic era, higher education institutions desperately need online programmes if they are to guard against declining enrolment numbers. But due to their long-standing aversion to online education, many colleges and universities are not equipped with reputable, marketable online degree programmes that will convince students to stay enrolled.

As a result, many schools are making the potentially disastrous decision to send students, staff and faculty back to campus and into harm’s way.

The origin of the stigma toward online education can be traced back to the debates surrounding the craze for massive open online courses in the early- to mid-2010s. When Moocs failed, much of the industry turned its nose up at distance learning altogether, despite rising demand.

Others, conscious of that demand and the billions of dollars it represented, continued to implement programmes, but with limited motivation and resources and without a true understanding of best practices. This has led most online programmes to become soulless experiences in which students learn course content in solitude and discuss it via vapid, outdated discussion boards.

New York University professor Hans Taparia put it succinctly in a recent New York Times op-ed: “Up until now, online education has been relegated to the equivalent of a hobby at most universities. With the pandemic, it has become a back-up plan.”

The data on this is clear. A recent study concluded that colleges have failed to reduce the cost of online programmes (one of their supposed draws), raise completion and success rates, or increase the amount of faculty-student engagement. These trends have led employer confidence in online education to plummet, potentially harming the career prospects of millions of graduates. There is a wealth of empirical research on online learning, but institutions don’t seem to be using it.

Fully asynchronous formatting – the primary method of online instruction for 95 per cent of large programmes and 73 per cent of mid-size programmes – allows student to learn at different times of the day according to their own convenience, but this approach is the exact opposite to what is suggested in the research literature, which advocates high levels of faculty-student interaction.

When the pandemic forced institutions to frantically bring their classes online, schools knew that they needed to create virtual courses that offered the levels of engagement found in traditional ones. But for many institutions, moving courses to Zoom was primarily motivated by a need to defend themselves against students’ and parents’ complaints, calls for tuition reimbursement, and even threats of legal consequences . But institutions’ inexperience with synchronous learning led to less-than-desirable learning experiences for many students anyway – and they noticed.

Higher education is incredibly fortunate that technology has allowed for even a cursory use of synchronous learning. But imagine how different the pandemic response would have been if they had already been well versed in these tools. Schools would likely be facing much less backlash and enrolment decline.

Enrolment for the autumn 2020 semester is down across higher education for a variety of reasons, with financial and health concerns chief among them. But another leading cause seems to be a widespread distrust of online education. A Carnegie Dartlet survey, published in May, found that 33 per cent of high school students would rather defer or cancel their acceptance to college than attend fully online.

Another recent study that gauged residential and non-residential students’ likeliness to re-enrol in the autumn found gaps of between 21 and 30 percentage points between in-person and online formats. It’s a safe bet the parents of these students, who often foot the tuition bill, share the same feelings of scepticism about online instruction. And who can blame them?

The widespread announcements that campuses will reopen in the fall – despite the grave public health consequences that that could have for staff, faculty and students – are largely a signal to students that they won’t need to take classes online. This may protect institutions from the mass withdrawals they would likely face if they announced a fully virtual term, but many in the field suspect that they will switch to fully virtual terms at the last minute.

Put simply, if universities and colleges had invested in better online education programmes, much of the trepidation students and their parents are having about the autumn semester would have been assuaged. And institutions would have a more stable, more transparent and safer way to continue their educational missions.

Online programmes allow for millions of students – many of them non-traditional – to earn a college degree and improve their lives. Those programmes could and should be great, and they deserve our effort now more than ever.

Joseph Guarneri is a college administrator working in academic advising.

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