“Watching the entire Ivy League slowly turn into the University of Phoenix,” a Barnard student tweeted last Tuesday. We can’t think of a more concise summary of the predicament higher education faces with the spread of the coronavirus.
Residential colleges and universities nationwide are now obliging students to finish current-term academic coursework online, just as millions of students enrolled in distance learning programs such as the University of Phoenix’s, and no one knows for sure what will happen come fall. Does this make a Harvard seminar or a Stanford lab conveyed through a video feed functionally equivalent to the face-to-face versions?
As sociologists of higher education who live our professional lives in academia, we are both impressed and sobered by the implications of our sector’s response to the spread of the virus.
In the context of months of relative inaction and the absence of effective guidance from the federal government, elite U.S. colleges and universities led civil society with aggressive social-distancing mitigation measures to protect their own communities and flatten the curve of nationwide transmission. They called off large gatherings and study-abroad programs, then closed dormitories and classrooms. Countering the assumptions many make about a slow-moving academia, the entire sector turned on a dime. In doing so it served as a model of responsible civic action in our nation’s otherwise chaotic public sphere.
Yet by quickly moving classes to the internet and telling students that online delivery would be credited and billed exactly as face-to-face delivery, elite schools surfaced big questions about their core business model. While some have waived a few fees or reduced room-and-board charges to residential students, virtually all of them have so far drawn the line at tuition: no discounts for online classes. This stance on pricing has a complicated history.
Over the past two decades, as educational technology advanced in sophistication and effectiveness, decision makers at selective residential schools merely tinkered with digital learning. A burst of enthusiasm and experimentation around massive open online courses (MOOCs) in 2012 quickly evaporated.
While schools with more or less open admissions such as Arizona State, Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire Universities fundamentally rethought and rebuilt their undergraduate programs, using digital media to provide increased access at lower cost, the selective schools generally went on with their classroom business as usual.
Elite colleges and universities took advantage of commercial tools for delivering readings and assignments and taking attendance, but generally continued with sage-on-the-stage, small seminar discussions or other conventional delivery models for their core operations. Reforms centered on increasing student engagement, but elite colleges and universities continued to expect their students to pay for full-time enrollment, move into dormitories, attend class in person and stay for four or more years.
But the hard fact is that this delivery format is an extraordinarily expensive way of purveying college degrees. Americans’ obsession with residential education as the sine qua non of academic excellence is a big part of what makes higher education roughly twice as costly per student here than it is in European countries. It also categorically excludes those whose life circumstances make them unable to leave their family homes and forgo paid work to attend college.
An unwavering commitment to this form of delivery prevented elite schools from using digital media to lower costs for all of their students, or investing in the pedagogical expertise that might have rendered online learning options complementary in practice and commensurate in quality to face-to-face instruction. This is why tens of thousands of students and faculty at some of the wealthiest and most esteemed universities in the world are finishing their coursework in video chat rooms this spring, instead of having the opportunity to take advantage of high quality interactive and pedagogically sound online options. We can only speculate how things might have been different if residential schools had invested as much in online learning platforms as they have in recruiting star researchers, renovating dormitories or upgrading athletics facilities over the last 20 years.
We recognize that residential programs provide a great deal more to students than mere coursework. They are relationship machines, generating countless friendships, intimate partnerships and professional network ties. That machinery doesn’t translate easily to digital life, which is why residential-campus students, when told to complete their coursework on computers, feel cheated out of much of the value associated with residential college attendance.
We also recognize that online formats bring their own risks. When poorly designed and bereft of genuine human attentiveness, online delivery can be disastrous for students who are not well prepared for college-level coursework. Inequitable outcomes will almost surely result if the makeshift approaches being used to weather the current crisis continue indefinitely.
Going forward, educators will need to study and compare learning outcomes for different kinds of students in a variety of instructional formats. With prudent investment, careful observation and a commitment to ongoing improvement in both physical classrooms and online, quality instruction can be provided irrespective of delivery mode.
Well-resourced institutions should use their capital and scientific endowments to create and model best practices: building best-in-class online learning platforms and then adopting and promoting research-based approaches to iterate and improve on instructional design. Here the nation’s esteemed research universities are ideally positioned to serve the entire sector: they have the scale, expertise, and research infrastructure to make signal advances in applied learning science.
Additionally, administrators, faculty and alumni should recognize the costliness of requiring students to leave their homes and physically cohabit with one another for four years. How much of that is really necessary? Might two or three years of being on campus together suffice for four?
This is not a fanciful idea. For example, the University of California system now requires that one junior transfer student be admitted — primarily from the state’s community college system — for every two traditional entering freshmen students. Students admitted this way receive most of the benefits of a University of California education while enjoying substantial savings on tuition, room and board charges during their initial college years.
Might young people be encouraged to live at home and take courses online for an initial period after high school, or perhaps to finish their studies digitally while embedded as interns and apprentices with potential employers? There are many good reasons to consider this: cost; the variability of adolescent developmental trajectories; rising concern over student mental health, food insecurity and substance abuse on campus; equity of college opportunity for those with responsibility to care for children and other loved ones; and the often tenuous relationship between academic coursework and the real world.
One positive outcome from the current crisis would be for academic elites to forgo their presumption that online learning is a second- or third-rate substitute for in-person delivery. This is snobbish, counterproductive and insensitive to the nation’s critical need for affordable college options. Online delivery should be valued in its own right — a worthy learning format with its own distinctive assets — and given the investment it deserves.
We are optimistic that our colleagues will go there. After all, they already take great advantage of digital platforms to pursue their research programs, connect scholarly communities, and enable collaboration across vast distances. And they value, in principle, ideals of educational access and opportunity.
A global pandemic currently obliges otherwise unconscionable concessions of instructional quality, but it can also be a wake-up call. No one planned it, but the next few months will be an exquisite experiment in the demands and possibilities of online learning. Who knows? For college teaching and learning, there may be no return to normal.