Universities have struggled with deciding whether to return students to campus this fall for in-person classes. Each institution can make its own best decision. It would help, however, if the administrators making the call would have the integrity to acknowledge that remote learning is an ineffective substitute for real educational instruction. The administrators can’t do that, of course, without also providing for reductions in tuition charges.
So, the universities lean back on the crutch of technology-based remote learning to snooker students and tuition-paying parents into thinking real education is happening. Technology is lifted up as a fake god that can solve higher education’s challenges during a pandemic. Even in today’s technology-obsessed culture, people intuitively know this techno-driven education has its limits. Mediated communication, which distance learning is, simply can’t match the richer experience of in-person labs, discussions and debates. Mediated technology is just not a replacement for genuine human interaction, whether it is in personal relationships or an educational setting.
The capability of remote college instruction has been around for years. If remote, on-line learning were so wonderful, college administrators wouldn’t have waited for a pandemic to put the system into full throttle.
University leaders have been gulled into the false promise of technological determinism. Basically, since the technology exists to do something, people are lured into doing it that way. These administrators, however, fail to understand the difference between the mere technical transmission of information, and the process of real education. Cultural observer Eric Hoffer warned 50 years ago of the dehumanization that happens when technological devices robotically dump data into people’s heads.
The scientific developments that allow for remote education have dazzled university administrators, ultimately causing them to surrender their judgment to the techno-sphere. Socio-political critic, G. K. Chesterton, warned a century ago about baseless loyalty to science taking the place of human decision-making: “Science must not impose any philosophy, any more than the telephone must tell us what to say.”
The evidence from last spring’s semester of remote learning should have been instructive to administrators now riding the on-line education bandwagon. According to Axios, 77 percent of college students say distance learning is worse or much worse than in-person classes.
A poll by College Reaction late last spring reported that 45 percent of college students attended virtual classes less often than in-person classes. Seventy-one percent reported they were distracted during on-line classes by their cell phone or other background interruptions at home or in their apartments. Clearly, such un-focused or absent students don’t learn as well as they would in the real classroom, yet colleges persist in settling for and forcing Brand X education.
Universities are disingenuously trying to reassure students and parents that the educational quality of on-line learning will be the match of in-person classes. One institution sent an email to all students and parents over the summer trumpeting this bold claim, “They (the faculty) are all united in making sure every student is learning in the same powerful ways they would be in person.” Such rhetorical excess is surely laughable to parents as they write full-tuition checks while their sons and daughters sit in front of computers in the basement.
Colleges have rationalized the push for on-line learning by pointing to the need to keep students safe during the pandemic. That sounds noble, on one level. But, if distance learning weren’t an option, odds are these schools would not have cancelled in-person learning and found a way to keep collecting tuition. Besides, it is hard to know college students will, indeed, be safer in their hometowns than at college. They will still be going out to party or work and be candidates for substance abuse. The colleges, however, can duck the responsibility.
The authenticity check for university administrators’ love of on-line learning will come once the pandemic is over. As Michael Poliakoff of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni wrote recently, universities have gorged themselves in recent years, expanding budgets for student services, fancy buildings, administrative bureaucracies and trendy academics. All of that will surely be back in vogue once the pandemic runs its course. Universities will be back to business as usual, running theme parks and crowing about the on-campus experience. Remote learning will no longer be touted as “just as good” when the big money is to be had with campus amenities and “building community.”
Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.