Don’t abandon virtual learning options (opinion)

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With 2022 commencement in the books and colleges and universities now turning to the upcoming school year, administrators and students alike should discount a sentiment that many administrators and others in the higher education universe hold and which was captured in a recent New York Times opinion piece. The Times author argued that if higher education is to thrive, “everyone involved—students, faculties, administrators and the public at large—must insist on in-person classes and high expectations for fall 2022 and beyond.”

The view that our nation’s colleges and universities must return to in-person classes exclusively is shortsighted and fails to recognize the real gains and benefits that come with virtual learning. As such, while many classes and collegiate experiences should absolutely remain in person, a hybrid model should be embraced as many in higher education would be well served by the many and often unspoken benefits remote learning has to offer.

No one can argue that the global COVID-19 pandemic has not significantly impacted higher education. But even before the pandemic shut down most in-person learning in the spring of 2020, higher education was already in trouble. Tuition and other costs were rising, and administrative bloat was interfering with campus life both in and outside the classroom. Adjunct faculty were doing an increasing share of the teaching, and college burnout, social media addiction and mental health concerns were greatly impacting students. Students were struggling well before the pandemic, and remote learning cannot be the scapegoat for broader failures in higher education.

When COVID-19 suddenly hit, online classes and virtual engagement were far from top-notch. But over time, students and faculty gradually adapted to and improved upon virtual learning. And thanks to data from College Pulse, we now know that classroom discussions actually improved in a number of cases. College Pulse surveyed more than 37,000 college and university students in the spring of 2021, and the data reveal that few students felt that remote learning negatively affected their ability to speak up in class. Only 17 percent of students reported that sharing their views in class was much more difficult online than in person. Meanwhile, almost six in 10 (57 percent) students stated that online class was as just as an easy or an even easier space in which to share their views.

Furthermore, there was virtually no difference across institution types, with students at liberal arts colleges—known for their small seminars and focus on classroom discussion—reporting similar views on the ease of speaking in online classrooms as peers at large research universities. And—notably given the many headlines that have appeared throughout the pandemic decrying inequalities and inhibited learning outcomes for students with fewer financial resources—there was virtually no difference across students based on financial aid status.

It is also worth noting that the majority of students give high marks to virtual learning. In the fall of 2021, when many students were still taking virtual classes, College Pulse asked more than 2,500 students at 136 colleges and universities to grade their college experience. When asked how well their spring 2021 courses met their respective educational needs, almost three-quarters (72 percent) of undergraduates graded their courses with either A’s or B’s. Seventy percent of students felt that faculty engagement deserved an A or B, and 73 percent gave A or B marks to the flexibility faculty gave them in terms of adapting to their needs.

In the spring of 2022, well after colleges and universities reopened for in-person instruction, College Pulse interviewed more than 2,300 students and found that almost three-quarters (71 percent) of students said they would like the option to take some of their courses in a fully online format. As Paul Penn, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of East London, recently argued in an op-ed in Times Higher Education, “Over the best part of two years, students adapted to studying remotely. They orientated their lives such that returning to campus would now mean losing something they value,” such as flexible time to work or spend time with family, or simply the ability to save money by being off campus. There is now a clear demand for and real change in thinking about virtual learning options among students.

The fact of the matter is that in-person education is certainly valuable. And of course, particular courses such as chemistry, music and photography must be done in person. But as the nation moves beyond the pandemic, it would be foolish to simply ignore online education. Students clearly want some online education, and colleges and universities should be responsive to this demand. Having virtual options for some courses can help students manage work with other responsibilities, save on commute times and transportation costs, and allow students to take courses outside usual hours. From a teaching perspective, having some courses go virtual means that schools can draw on talent from around the nation without asking instructors to relocate.

The data demonstrate that virtual classrooms have made it easier for some students to speak and question freely—arguably a silver lining of this pandemic. Thus, a hybrid model of higher education should be welcomed by colleges and universities going forward. The higher education world has changed because of the pandemic, and students are not going to ignore the possibility of some form of virtual education—a medium that is not as awful as it is often portrayed to be by some and that should be harnessed to provide a unique learning opportunity alongside traditional in-person learning.

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