Online college classes can be better than in-person ones

Software developers at Andela Nigeria headquarters in Lagos. Photo: Andela/Rotimi Okungbaye

When the Covid pandemic started in early 2020, colleges shifted to remote learning out of necessity. With large in-person gatherings in classrooms suddenly banned, online instruction was seen as the lesser of two evils – inferior to in-person classes, but infinitely better than no classes at all.

By John Villasenor – Brookings Institute

Two years later, something unexpected happened. For many college courses, online teaching is proving to be much more effective than expected. Why? One of the main reasons is that today’s communication networks and consumer devices enable much better quality telepresence than a decade ago. But another reason is that due to the pandemic, a huge number of students and instructors have become proficient in e-learning software.

In particular, the mass adoption of Zoom in higher education has created a network effect where its usefulness as an educational tool is amplified by the number of people who have become familiar with its use. The quality of a well-run synchronous (i.e. live, as opposed to pre-recorded) online course can now rival – and in some ways exceed – the quality of the in-person equivalent.

Synchronous online teaching allows for a richer set of interactions. When I teach online, the Zoom “chat” window often becomes an endless stream of insightful ideas, feedback, and student-provided web links. Rather than distracting from the lesson, chat dialogue enriches it. Students ask and answer questions from me and each other, offer reflections, and respond to posts from their peers. During a recent class discussion regarding the First Amendment, as soon as I mentioned several related Supreme Court cases, one of the students dropped links to the decisions in the chat. There is simply no analog to this parallel form of engagement in a traditional in-person course.

I’ve also found that some students are reluctant to speak up during in-person classes, but comfortable using the chat feature in online classes to provide feedback or questions in writing. It makes me wonder: How many thoughtful and interesting perspectives weren’t expressed in my in-person classes before the pandemic? Obviously, there must have been students in these classes who would have been happy to provide their ideas in writing if it had been possible, but who instead remained silent because that was not the case.

Another advantage of online teaching is the extended ability to invite non-local lecturers. For the past two years, I have hosted lecturers in my UCLA online classes from as far away as Argentina. I now marvel at the time inefficiency of some of the pre-pandemic trips I took when I was a guest speaker – when I spent an entire day, and sometimes more, flying round-trip in order to to spend 90 minutes in a class at another university. It’s asking a lot to expect a guest speaker to devote so much time to attend a single class meeting. By contrast, online guest appearances only take up an hour or two of the speaker’s time, greatly expanding the universe of people available to speak.

Additionally, at the many colleges that currently require students and instructors to wear masks while in a physical classroom, online teaching has another advantage that is so obvious and fundamental that it often goes Unnoticed: It’s much easier to understand what someone is saying when you can see their face.

Recognition of the potential benefits of online education is not new. An article published in 2001 noted that online courses could “address a variety of learning styles”, allow “access to a wider variety of quality resources” and allow instructors “to use methods of creative teaching to provide material”. Due to the pandemic-induced mass adoption of online college education, these predictions have come true on a scale that would have been hard to imagine two decades ago.

Of course, online learning also has drawbacks. As a 2018 article discussing “e-learning in higher education” put it, “an online environment can benefit some types of engagement, but can also be somewhat of a deterrent to others.”

A major drawback of online education is that there are classes of classes for which it is woefully inadequate – think chemistry labs, studio art classes, etc. Another vitally important concern is that online learning can be isolating. An online course does not allow for the level of spontaneous student interactions that occur before, during, and after in-person class meetings. It is an important mechanism for students to find study partners and teammates for class projects, and more generally for socializing and getting to know their peers.

There are also well-documented equity issues with online learning, including the fact that not all students have a home with access to reliable internet and a computer. But there are also equity issues on the other side of the ledger. Not all students are able to live on campus or within easy commuting distance of one. And some students have care responsibilities for a young child or elderly parent that limit their flexibility to leave home. For these students, it may be more equitable to provide instruction online than to require attendance in a physical classroom.

The bottom line is that the preconceptions I and many others in higher education had about the supposed unambiguous inferiority of online courses have been proven wrong. Unfortunately, few college administrators are likely to recognize the benefits of synchronous online instruction. It would challenge the entire residential college model — a concept that is a multibillion-dollar enterprise, a central feature of the American cultural landscape, and an all-in-one rite of passage.

But a more objective, pandemic assessment of online learning would concede that thanks to technology, the campus classroom – the real and symbolic core around which everything the university has come to mean is built – no longer has need to be a physical room. We are probably not ready to imagine what higher education would look like if it were completely redesigned, taking full advantage of the opportunities created by technology to maximize student engagement and quality, accessibility and equity. Education.

One thing is certain: it would be very different from the higher education ecosystem we have today.

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