New America Weekly

Everybody Ready for the Big Migration to Online College? Actually, No.

Weekly Article
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March 17, 2020

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Nobody planned for an abrupt mass migration of traditional college courses to the internet.

But because of coronavirus, that’s where we are.

Hundreds of thousands of students have been told to clear out their belongings and head home, many through the end of the semester. In nearly every case, colleges have said that instruction will continue online.

Making it work will require much more than giving every professor a Zoom account and letting instruction take its course. That’s partly because not all students will be able to access or benefit from suddenly online courses equally.

Undergraduates at places like Harvard, Stanford and M.I.T. will largely have no problem getting online to complete their work. But one recent study found that roughly 20 percent of students have trouble with basic technology needs. Their data plans are capped, their computers break, or their connections fail. Those with technology challenges are disproportionately low-income and students of color, who are also more vulnerable to dropping out.

Those students need courses that are not just accessible, but also well designed.

In some ways, colleges have been building toward this moment for more than a decade. One-third of all undergraduates are enrolled in online classes now. Thirteen percent are learning exclusively online. Online course-taking has increased for 14 consecutive years, even as overall enrollment has declined.

Colleges have also adopted so-called learning management systems, virtual platforms that help faculty interact with students on campus and off. Like all modern institutions, college now exists in a state of constant electronic connectivity.

Ideally, online education accomplishes at least three distinct things: distance, scale and personalization. All of them will be hard for colleges to manage in the coming weeks.

Tools for communicating at a distance have steadily improved over time. But they’re not perfect, as anyone who has ever participated in a video conference call can attest.

(OK, now I can see you but I can’t hear you … there’s a little microphone button at the bottom of the screen, did you click on that? There! That’s better. Can everyone who isn’t talking put themselves on “mute”? One of you is apparently in a crowded bus terminal of some kind?)

It takes practice and skill to teach effectively at a distance. Colleges have largely let individual faculty members decide whether to participate in online learning, and some have gotten very good at it. Others haven’t. Now the most traditional and recalcitrant instructors will have to do something difficult they’ve never done before.

It also takes practice to learn at a distance. There’s a structure inherent to learning on campus, a rhythm and tangibility that keeps students connected to the academic community. Some students easily adapt to a virtual environment. Others don’t. Now students used to learning one way will have to adapt quickly. Research suggests that academically marginal undergraduates struggle the most in fully online classes.

One way to manage the problem of inexperienced online professors is to increase the number of students being taught by the most successful teachers. Scale is currently a big part of online college, because that’s where all the profits are. It’s why for-profit colleges got into the online game early, and why public and private institutions are rapidly growing their offerings now.

But scale requires time and money upfront. The only way for one professor to reach hundreds or even thousands of students is to embed the learning process in technology. The simplest example is recording a lecture that students can view online. But effective online courses require much more. Many campuses now employ full-time “instructional designers” who help faculty map out courses and degree programs. They also create learning modules, online exercises, virtual laboratories and assessments.

The designers are good at their jobs and getting better. But it’s an expensive and labor-intensive process. The reason that many colleges are signing away up to 70 percent of future online tuition revenue to private for-profit companies is that those firms offer the financial capital and expertise needed to convert traditional courses online.

It’s impossible to transform a college course into the virtual world overnight. Which means the students currently boxing up their clothes and laptops also won’t benefit from the advantages of technology-enabled personalization. Fully online courses are usually, in whole or in part, “asynchronous,” meaning that students can learn when they need to.

A parent with a job can log on after putting the kids to bed at night, rather than hunt for a parking spot to make a 10 a.m. on-campus lecture. That’s a simple but powerful kind of personalization, particularly if people are caring for loved ones who are sick.

While the popular idea of individual “learning styles” has been largely discredited by academic research, people still bring vastly different levels of knowledge, talent and context to the classroom, virtual or otherwise. The long-sought-after dream of technology-enabled education is to build machines that can assess these differences, react to them, and give students a better educational experience — personalized to what they know and need.

There are decades of research in this field, and many promising theories and tools, but as of yet no breakthrough technologies in terms of cost and student learning.

What does all of this mean for colleges suddenly forced to move online because of the coronavirus pandemic? The only thing they can create right now is distance, which is important of course for health reasons. They do not have the time or resources necessary to map out the rest of their courses and build online versions on the fly that can accommodate large numbers of students. They will not be able to train their teachers how to teach or their learners how to learn. There will be little personalization.

College professors and administrators care deeply about the health and education of their students. In the coming weeks, they will rally around their responsibilities as teachers and develop many innovative solutions to the sudden challenge the pandemic has created. But in a sense, it’s a mistake to say that colleges will be “moving to online education.” All they’ll really be doing is conducting traditional education at a distance. That will be hard enough.