On the one hand, the argument has the benefit of an actual reason: online courses are far less costly to colleges than in-person courses, and if they cost less, the cost of a college degree will be less, making it more accessible to those of modest means.
Covid-19 is about to ravage that business model. Mass unemployment is looming large and is likely to put college out of reach for many. With America now the epicenter of the pandemic and bungling its response, many students are looking to defer enrollment.
Deferring enrollment, taking leaves of absence, transferring, are questions asked by many students and parents, though cost is only one piece of the puzzle. The much larger piece is whether the education they will get is third-rate.
Up until now, online education has been relegated to the equivalent of a hobby at most universities. With the pandemic, it has become a backup plan. But if universities embrace this moment strategically, online education could expand access exponentially and drop its cost by magnitudes — all while shoring up revenues for universities in a way that is more recession-proof, policy-proof and pandemic-proof.
Here’s the fear, that the unduly passionate see a crack in the outrageous tuition charged by moving online, which they argue had been treated poorly before but is now “proving” to be a viable substitute for in-person education. Not only can tuition be reduced in light of the less expensive delivery mechanism, but all the ancillary costs, dorm and food, go away as well. Sure, students still need a roof over their heads and food to eat, but they no longer have to be profit centers to admins.
But Zoom sucks?
March did not go well. Faculty members were forced to revamp lesson plans overnight. “Zoom-bombers” took advantage of lax privacy protocols. Students fled home, with many in faraway time zones prolonging jet lag just to continue synchronous learning. Not surprisingly, the experience for both students and faculty has left much to be desired. According to one survey, more than 75 percent of students do not feel they received a quality learning experience after classrooms closed.
But what surveys miss are the numerous spirited efforts to break new ground, as only a crisis can be the impetus for.
And “spirited efforts” aren’t the same as a sound education. If you value the cost of education more than the quality, then online is the way to go. It will certainly cost less. It will certainly be worse, and given that classroom education isn’t what it used to be as it’s become unduly concerned with the self-esteem of students, their sense of safety and their opinions being respected despite the fact that they don’t know what they’re talking about, and then there’s the pinking down of education lest diversity suffer for the demands of competence.
But it will bring in more poor people, which will enhance diversity and create equity between the wealthy and the oppressed. Isn’t that worth it?
For good reason, many educators have been skeptical of online learning. They have questioned how discussion-based courses, which require more intimate settings, would be coordinated. They wonder how lab work might be administered. Of course, no one doubts that the student experience would not be as holistic. But universities don’t need to abandon in-person teaching for students who see the value in it.
They simply need to create “parallel” online degrees for all their core degree programs. By doing so, universities could expand their reach by thousands, creating the economies of scale to drop their costs by tens of thousands.
To be fair, academics are in constant search for the next new thing, and what COVID-19 is doing is providing an opening for a novel new normal. It’s like fashion trends, if hemlines don’t rise and fall, what is there for designer to do to prove his worth?
Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci…wants to do away with the distinction between menswear and womenswear, and the traditional appellations of fall/winter and spring/summer.
“We need new oxygen to allow this complex system to be reborn,” Michele said, speaking from his studio in Rome while pensively waving a large black fan.
The cynics will see this as more evidence that Harrison Bergeron was prophetic, and it may yet be true, but we’re still fairly high up on the slippery slope, as the stage where homogenizing variables in society for the sake of social justice takes precedence over quality and competence, and new ideas and changes are embraced for no better reason than they’re not the same old ideas.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been asked by a number of college and law school students, and their parents, what they should do come the fall. Attending in person has its risks, and some schools will open up because they need the money, even though dorms are petri dishes and they don’t want a degree conferred on their dearly departed child. But online fails miserably to provide the quality of education needed to succeed, plus schools aren’t cutting a break in tuition.
Hems go up. Hems go down. Online or off, or take a gap year until we know better. And whatever will they wear on campus, now that boys and girls can share all their clothing? What should students and parents do, as the fall will be upon us soon enough?
*Tuesday Talk rules apply.