Time to reconsider the value of in-person classes

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Uncertainty hangs over college and university campuses across the county. Having delivered spring semester classes remotely, some schools, including the entire California state system, plan to continue the practice for the fall. Others will partially open, offering a limited number of courses (such as those requiring labs) on campus under very restrictive conditions.

Students worry about getting the individual attention they need to succeed, and parents wonder if they will still get their money’s worth from distance learning. These concerns reflect an exaggerated impression of what in-class teaching really offers and a misunderstanding of what online learning can provide.

Thirty years of teaching, five of them offering online and hybrid as well as traditional classes, have taught me that many beliefs about the efficacy of face-to-face instruction and concerns over the problems of distance learning have been exaggerated. Although not suited to every subject, online teaching not only offers the same quality of instruction but actually has some advantages over in-person instruction.

Most general education (liberal arts) courses focus on two things: mastery of content and development of skills (reading, writing, critical thinking) necessary to succeed in upper-division classes. A properly trained instructor can achieve these goals online format just as through in-person. In fact, considerable data suggest that online courses may even be more effective than face-to-face ones. They allow students greater flexibility to work at their own pace, provide an opportunity to review presentations multiple times and create more opportunities for individual and group discussion.

Contrary to popular belief, the traditional classroom may not be nearly as interactive as people believe. While few professors rely exclusively on oral delivery supplemented by terms scrawled on the black or whiteboard, most still rely on the lecture to deliver content. While this approach has the advantage of allowing immediate interaction between students and faculty, it has some drawbacks. Students only have the class period (usually one to one and a half hours) to get the material. Furiously taking notes to avoid missing anything, they have little time to process what they record. They will probably formulate their most thoughtful question long after the class period has ended. 

For an online course, the instructor records presentations using a platform such as PowerPoint and posts it on the course websites. Students can pause the presentation and view it as many times as they need to learn the material. They can email the professor questions individually or post them on a virtual discussion board for the benefit of the entire class. Tools such as Zoom, Facetime, or Skype a professor to hold virtual office hours, interacting with students face-to-face.

What about class discussions, which everyone agrees are a vital part of higher education? Based on my own experience and what I have observed peer evaluating colleagues, student participation in the classroom may be far more limited than many instructors realize. Only a fraction of students actively participate, and a few aggressive ones usually dominate the conversation. Introverted students avoid speaking up as do students who struggle with the material, not wishing to lack bad in front of their peers.

Virtual discussion forums, on the other hand, require all students to contribute and give the instructor objective material on which to grade participation. If the discussion takes place in asynchronous time, students can post original comments and replies at the time most convenient to their schedules. Platforms like Desire to Learn to allow a class to be broken into small groups to facilitate interaction. This approach works very well. I have seen students reticent to speak up in class thrive in an online forum. 

Faculty teaching upper-division seminars or those wishing everyone to “attend” can still convene class via Zoom or other media. 

“What about the loss of that interpersonal touch so vital to higher education,” some may wonder. That was my biggest concern when I took the DePaul Online Teaching course. I asked a panel of students how they felt about the matter. “I have taken traditional courses in which the professor showed little interest in me as an individual,” one student observed, “and had online instructors go out of their way to make sure I succeeded.”

That answer reveals the key to success in any form of teaching: the willingness of the instructor to devote the time, energy, and creativity to designing and delivering an effective course. Online teaching can be more time consuming than a traditional class, especially the first time through. Instructors need to communicate collectively and individually with their students on a regular basis. They may need to adjust their work hours, agreeing to Skype or Facetime evenings and weekends to accommodate student work schedules. 

Online teaching also requires creative adjustments to time-honored approaches. Long lectures need to be broken into smaller segments. Shorter, more frequent assessments help students remain engaged. Timed, in-class exams (which penalized special needs students) should be replaced by open-book, open-note ones completed during a longer window of opportunity. 

Still not convinced? Well, then consider what the new normal on college campuses will be. Social distancing and masks will be required. Students may find themselves with 20 of their pears sitting at least six feet apart in a lecture hall that seats 100. Their professor may be wearing a mask and/or lecturing from behind a plexiglass shield. Everyone will have to enter the room individually to avoid contact. How will such a learning environment be more personal than interacting online?

Online learning is not suitable for every course. Art students need access to studios. Science majors must be able to use labs. Colleges and universities should concentrate on those students back on campus. For the rest, remotely taught courses can deliver a high-quality educational experience safely.

Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history at DePaul University. His latest book is “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat. Follow him on Twitter: @DrMockaitis.

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