As of March 23, I have converted my five semester courses to online instruction. My college like virtually all others, has gone into lockdown in response to the Coronavirus epidemic, and all of our courses will continue remotely through the end of the current semester. I have taught the occasional online course for the last decade, so the disruption wasn’t quite as strenuous for me as it was for several colleagues who were wholly unfamiliar with this increasingly common mode of instruction. I am, of course, happy to have the online option as a fallback, since I can at least complete the semester and give the students a modicum of what they paid for. But whenever normalcy returns, I will gladly return to the classroom without any second thoughts. And that will place me squarely at odds with enthusiasts for online instruction, some of whom see the current crisis as the golden opportunity to shift most academic instruction everywhere to the internet.
I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen, since I remain an obdurate skeptic of online teaching. Its eager promoters recall the bubbly enthusiasm for telecourses three decades ago which were similarly touted as the revolutionary transformation we’d all been hoping for. No doubt my resistance to this latest wave of the future is attributable to the fact that I am a senior faculty member with well-grooved teaching habits that I simply don’t want to let go of. But I also think that online courses don’t work as well as proponents would like us to believe that they do. The attrition rate remains prohibitively high, which isn’t at all surprising. Many students 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 set classroom course would.
Unfortunately, distance learning by definition requires a level of self-discipline and time management skill that most of them don’t have. Accomplished autodidacts usually do very well, but they’re hardly the typical student. In addition - despite my frequent, bright red warnings to the contrary - is the common assumption that online courses will be less academically demanding than traditional classroom offerings. It’s a common complaint in student evaluations and resembles what you’d expect to hear at the customer service desk in a department store. Academic rigor has never been terribly popular but seems 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 are especially inclined to yield to student complaints; watering down of academic standards will inevitably follow, despite assurances to the contrary. I’m unimpressed by surveys purporting to demonstrate that students in online courses perform as well as those in regular classroom settings. Given the increasingly poor preparation of so many students entering college these days – they often read and write at a 7th grade level – the surveys simply illustrate that students in either type of course are equally deficient. The difference is that those tendencies are far less likely to be corrected online than they are in class.
Yes, yes, there are some practical aspects of online education that are attractive, especially to administrators. Many of the courses are taught by adjunct instructors, which costs much less than full-time faculty do. It makes campus logistics much easier, since limited classroom space is often a problem in seasons of higher enrollment. It can be a real PR boon, which schools can tout as the “innovative teaching strategies” of the future that they’ll provide for their students. But if you’re looking for the magic remedy that will cure the present academic deficiencies that plague American higher education, please don’t expect to find it in online teaching. It won’t make things better, and will probably make them worse.