The quick shift to teaching online in 2020 forced all of us in higher education to rethink how to do what we do and why. Those lessons, however messy and difficult, were well worth learning.
It’s clear that in the approaching post-pandemic world, some version of online learning will be a part of the fabric of most universities. And I believe that is good.
There were plenty of problems with how brick-and-mortar universities transitioned to online instruction in 2020. Many students and faculty struggled to access reliable Wi-Fi and technology. Most of us struggled to use online tools for teaching and learning. All of us struggled to study and work in the same spaces where we live, raise children and care for aging parents.
But when we focus solely on those problems, we risk missing the big picture. Last year, I learned a lot about what works in an online college course and what doesn’t. Like my colleagues, I paid even closer attention to the challenges that my students overcome each semester as they work hard to earn their degrees, and I found strategies to support them.
Now is the time to leverage that knowledge and start building the kind of inclusive, high-quality online instruction that faculty can really get behind. To do that, we need our universities to invest seriously in this effort and commit to offering online courses post-pandemic.
Historically, talk about online instruction in brick-and-mortar institutions brings up legitimate concerns about the privatization of public education. I can easily imagine a dystopic future in which the work of teaching has simply been turned over to profit-driven EdTech companies or academic service contractors. But so far, while some universities contract out services, such as tutoring and mentoring, they remain public institutions, not profit-driven corporations.
More recently, faculty have rightly compared the pandemic-era fervor to embrace online education to what Naomi Klein has termed “disaster capitalism.” Scholars at the University of Manitoba argue that Covid-19 has created the conditions for corporations to push their online products and for administrators to push policies that hurt students and teachers. Clearly, any move to swiftly outsource online instruction to private companies is reactionary and poses a serious threat to the future of public education.
But, online course options also expand access to the university education that so many students want. The fantasy of college life — happy-go-lucky students living and studying together on the grounds of a pristine, ivy-clad campus — does not match reality for many college students. My students have many commitments, from part-time jobs to caregiving responsibilities. Most of them commute to campus, completing coursework on the train, the bus or from a parked car. With the dizzyingly high cost of rent in the Bay Area, they struggle to find affordable local housing.
Online courses allow students to attend classes anywhere they can access reliable Wi-Fi. They give students more opportunities for flexibility in their tightly packed schedules. The time they used to spend on the road commuting can be better allocated to time learning and accessing campus resources, like meeting with instructors in virtual office hours or attending live-streamed campus events.
In August 2020, most of us at brick-and-mortar universities underestimated our students. We thought they would struggle to pass courses. We thought they would not attend events. We thought they might drop out.
We were wrong.
Our students were able to navigate learning online better than many instructors. At San José State, attendance more than doubled at speaker events, readings and performances in 2020 compared with prior years, perhaps because they could attend while babysitting siblings or in between job shifts. They not only passed their classes—they stayed with us, enrolling in the spring and then again in the fall.
Online learning will not solve all of our problems, and it won’t work for all students. Studies conducted by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and by the California State University have found that significant numbers of college students face challenges meeting basic needs, challenges worsened by the pandemic. A 2021 San José State survey on basic needs revealed that a staggering 41.5 percent of students faced housing insecurity and 29.6 percent faced food insecurity. In-person classes give those students the opportunity to access campus resources, like safe buildings with Wi-Fi and food pantries.
However, for many students and instructors alike, online courses offer a welcome alternative to traditional, in-person learning environments. Dismissing online education entirely to keep privatization at bay means dismissing the needs of students and faculty alike who found something valuable there and want to develop it further.
Now universities need to give us the time, funds and training we need to build high-quality, inclusive online courses we can be proud to offer.
Faith Kirk teaches writing and humanities courses at San José State University. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.
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