Editor’s note: In this Future View, students discuss online classes. Next week we’ll ask, “A leaked draft of Justice
opinion in Dobbs suggests that Roe v. Wade is about to be overturned. Should the Supreme Court return abortion law to the states? Is overturning Roe a good constitutional decision?” Students should click here to submit opinions of fewer than 250 words before May 10. The best responses will be published that night.
Online courses have a bright future. It is not hard to imagine a world where students can freely access education that is relevant to their needs and flexible to their schedules.
But as they exist today, university online courses are an implicit admission that many schools treat education solely as a series of hurdles to be jumped through. The structure of a typical online course reveals that the goal is not learning but to prove that an attempt at learning was made. Consider the dull Zoom lectures that have tortured students for over a year. In this less personal format, schools prioritize observable metrics such as the completion of assignments above facilitating personal inquiry. Stripping a course to its essentials—lectures, homework, and exams—lays bare that these essentials are not particularly useful and were never the reason that university education held any value.
Online education is going to change the learning process, the lives of young people and the world. Universities are not going to be the innovators driving the field forward. They are far too entrenched in an expensive business model that sells proof of education rather than learning. If we have an issue with university online courses, we should consider that the root cause is the most basic incentives that universities currently operate under.
—Nathan Stover, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, chemical engineering
Online Learning Leaves Students Lonely, Lying and Lacking
Online classes for a traditional college education are not a good trend. They decrease students’ social interaction with their peers and their professors. This reduction of socialization is in direct correlation with higher rates of depression and feelings of social isolation. People, especially during their college years, need to be around other people to foster the spread of ideas and to develop a strong sense of personal identity.
Online learning also decreases discipline and makes it easy for students to become lazy in their studies. In my experience, students view online classes differently from in-person classes: A student with three in-person classes and two online ones will act as though the two online classes are significantly less important. Further, since students care less about online classes and there’s no one watching their test taking in person, they are more likely to cheat. No matter how many lockdown browsers are used, more cheating happens in online classes than could take place in an in-person setting.
Finally, online classes limit the hands-on learning and training a student can receive. As a journalism major, I am not actively practicing my craft in an online class. It is useless to me and offers no real-world experience.
—Jack Clements, University of Mississippi, broadcast journalism
A New Age of Learning
Many colleges and universities across the nation have built programs around ideas of adaptability and flexibility—prior to Covid there was little of either in traditional college education. Whether domestic or international, students who didn’t live near their college of choice had to move there. This could be costly and mean taking on higher living expenses, particularly if the school was located in a major metropolitan areas. Many students passed up the opportunity to attend the program best suited to their studies in order to avoid these costs.
Covid forced many colleges and universities to embrace flexibility, innovation. Suddenly, students could study at the school they wanted without leaving home. Though many traditional colleges have now returned to hybrid classes, online classes have become less stigmatized and more widely offered, giving far-flung students more opportunities than they had before the pandemic.
The beauty of advancing technology is that we are capable of adapting faster to changes. Colleges are no exception to the progression. The move to online education has proved a good trend. The real question is why it took so long.
—Jane Karam, Drexel University, finance
The Importance of In-Person Learning
Online learning has thrown college students off their academic rails. Rather than being able to interact directly with professors, converse easily with peers, stay engaged during lectures, and have hands-on experiences in the classroom, students have been confined to their desks on video calls. In practice, that means they turn off their video cameras, check out during lectures, and work hard to not be caught cheating on exams. A study by Brown University found that there were definite negative impacts (3% to 6%) of online classes compared to in-person. Moreover, students do worse in online classes even at such high-performing institutions as West Point.
As a tutor and teaching assistant, I see firsthand how students have forgotten how to learn in the last two years that their education has been largely remote. They struggle with coursework far more than previous students did. Higher education institutions need to recognize these negative effects of remote learning, in spite of the alluring convenience and resource savings. They’re obvious to those they most affect.
—Therese Joffre, Hope College, chemistry
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