The Wuhan coronavirus has given the proponents of distance learning a chance to prove their stuff. Right now, all learning is distance learning. Video conferences, chat screens, recorded lectures, entertaining videos, and more pixely goodness are now the stuff of education.
America can expect that a lot of students who shift to distance learning won’t want to shift back. Part of the bar to distance learning was always its strangeness and unfamiliarity. Once students are used to distance learning, that bar will be overcome. Students will then be able to judge distance learning on its merits. Some of them will decide it suits them better than classroom learning.
Some students will make that decision wisely. If they are self-motivated, but short on time and short on money, they may get more out of distance learning than from a classroom filled with less motivated students, who have come to college to party. Mature students, of any age, are the natural beneficiaries of distance learning.
Some students will make that decision foolishly. Many professors and adjuncts will tell you, from hard experience, that too many students prefer distance learning because it gives them a chance to slack off—to do less homework, to goof off (“multitask”) when they should be listening to the professor. Eighteen year olds aren’t always the best judge of how they should learn.
Some students will make the decision in ignorance, and choose distance learning without having experienced classroom learning. This will be a great loss. At its best, the classroom really does electrify learning—whether by the master lecture of a Vladimir Nabokov, narrating the epic sweep of Russian literature, or by the excitement of a seminar where students converse, argue, and excite each other to grapple with ideas. It will be a great pity if students forego the classroom, and never learn just how much of the heart of learning they have foregone.
All this, mind you, is just from the point of view of the humanities classroom. Science education needs the laboratory, and we’re not yet at the point where every home has its own bunsen burner, telescope, and contained supply of drosophila melanogaster. Nursing students need patients to practice on, and education majors need classroooms. Distance learning may be even more crippling in those fields than in the liberal arts.
And all this assuming that the professor isn’t an ideologue who uses the electricity of the classroom to propagandize his students. Where that is the case, distance learning is preferable as a second best—a quarantine to maintain intellectual distance from pedagogical infection.
But we should still champion the classroom as it should be—the classroom ideal, which most every professor has experienced, and tries to pass on to his students. That ideal is too wonderful to abandon.
It’s too early to make that a programmatic recommendation. We have no idea what our colleges and universities will look like in September. But we should remember, going forward, that while distance education is necessary now, and useful for a great many students, it isn’t the answer for all students.
For many students, the best education they could ever receive will be in the classroom, face to face.
David Randall is Director of Research of the National Association of Scholars