When the Covid pandemic started in early 2020, colleges shifted to remote learning out of necessity. With large in-person gatherings in classrooms suddenly off-limits, online instruction was viewed as the lesser of two evils—inferior to in-person classes, but infinitely better than no classes at all.
Two years later, something unexpected has happened. For many college courses, online instruction is proving to be far more effective than many people anticipated. Why? One key reason is that today’s communications networks and consumer devices enable much higher quality telepresence than was possible a decade ago. But another reason is that due to the pandemic, enormous numbers of students and instructors have gained proficiency with online learning software.
In particular, the mass adoption of Zoom in higher education has created a network effect where its utility as an instructional tool is amplified by the number of people who have become familiar with using it. The quality of a well-run synchronous (i.e., live, as opposed to pre-recorded) online class can now rival—and in some respects exceed—the quality of the in-person equivalent.
Synchronous online instruction allows a richer set of interactions. When I am teaching online, the Zoom “chat” window often becomes a nonstop stream of insightful ideas, reactions, and web links provided by students. Rather than distracting from the course, the chat dialog enriches it. Students ask and answer questions from me and from each other, offer thoughts, and react to posts from their peers. In a recent class discussion regarding the First Amendment, as soon as I mentioned several related Supreme Court cases, one of the students dropped links to the rulings into the chat. There’s simply no analog to this parallel form of engagement in a traditional in-person class.
I’ve also found that there are students who are reticent about speaking up during in-person classes, but comfortable using the chat function in online classes to provide written comments or questions. It makes me wonder: How many thoughtful, interesting perspectives went unexpressed in my pre-pandemic in-person classes? Clearly, there must have been students in those classrooms who would have been happy to provide their ideas in written form had that been feasible, but who instead stayed silent because it was not.
Another advantage of online instruction is the expanded ability to invite non-local guest speakers. In the past two years, I have hosted speakers in my online UCLA classes from as far away as Argentina. I now marvel at the time inefficiency of some of the pre-pandemic trips that I made when I was a guest speaker—when I would spend a full day, and sometimes more, to take a round trip plane flight in order to spend 90 minutes in a classroom at another university. It’s asking a lot to expect a guest speaker to devote that much time in order to participate in a single class meeting. By contrast, online guest appearances take only an hour or two of the speaker’s time, making the universe of people who are available to speak vastly larger.
In addition, at the many colleges that currently require students and instructors to be masked while in a physical classroom, there’s another advantage to online instruction that’s so obvious and fundamental that it often goes unstated: it’s a lot easier to understand what someone is saying when you can see their face.
Recognition of the potential advantages of online instruction isn’t new. A paper published back in 2001 noted that online courses could “address a variety of learning styles,” allow “access to a larger variety of quality resources,” and enable instructors to “use creative teaching methods in delivering material.” Due to the pandemic-induced mass adoption of online college instruction, those predictions have proven to be true on a scale that would have been hard to imagine two decades ago.
Of course, online learning has downsides as well. As a 2018 paper addressing “Online learning in higher education” put it, “an online environment might benefit certain types of engagement, but may also be somewhat of a deterrent to others.”
A key disadvantage to online instruction is that there are categories of courses for which it falls woefully short—think chemistry laboratories, studio art classes, and the like. An additional vitally important concern is that online learning can be isolating. An online class doesn’t allow the level of spontaneous interactions among students that occur before, in, and after in-person class meetings. That’s an important mechanism for students to find study partners and teammates for class projects, and more generally to socialize and to get to know their peers.
There are also well-documented equity concerns with online learning, including the fact that not all students have a home with access to reliable internet and a computer. But there are also equity issues on the other side of the ledger. Not all students are in a position to live on-campus or within easy commuting distance of one. And some students have caregiving responsibilities for a young child or elderly relative that limit their flexibility for leaving home. For those students, it can be more equitable to offer online instruction than to require their presence in a physical classroom.
The bottom line is that the preconceived notions that I and many others in higher education had about the supposedly unambiguous inferiority of online classes have proven to be wrong. Unfortunately, few college administrators are likely to acknowledge the advantages of synchronous online instruction. Doing so would call into question the entire model of the residential college—a concept that is a multi-billion-dollar business, a central feature of the American cultural landscape, and a rite of passage all rolled up into one.
But a more objective, pandemic-seasoned appraisal of online learning would admit that thanks to technology, the campus classroom—the actual and symbolic core around which all that college has come to mean is constructed—no longer needs to be a physical room. We are probably not ready to imagine how higher education might look if it were redesigned from the ground up, taking full advantage of the opportunities created by technology to maximize student engagement and instructional quality, accessibility, and equity.
One thing is sure: It would look very different from the higher education ecosystem we have today.
By John Villasenor- Brookings Institute