On March 11, 2020, the email finally came. Tulane would officially be one of the many academic institutions closing down campuses and moving all classes online. There were a lot of rumors that it would be coming, but actually receiving it felt surreal. The following week would be cancelled entirely in order to allow students and staff to re-situate and professors to digitize their course. Response to the news was varied, ranging between “Online class?! Easy. Spring break forever!” and “what’s going to happen to my GPA?”.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, online classes had been reserved for “less prestigious” universities or easy classes you can complete for a few credits towards your degree at a “regular” university. Zoom quickly became the tool of choice for online learning. The first week, much of my classes consisted of Professors fumbling through the new platform, muttering under their breath along the way. Class clowns were replaced with online trolls and people with access to the Zoom link (but not registered to the class) would enter to cause an emotion, other students would relax in the bath or light a joint while the Professor lectured. Students were even uploading looping videos of themselves pretending to pay attention. After a firm email from the University reminding students that the academic conduct did in fact still stand, this died down and classes began to actually be treated as they would in a Newcomb Classroom.
There is no denying, it isn’t the same. One of my Professors, Douglas Nelson, stated, “One of the most difficult parts is not being able to read the room. For 20 years I’ve been learning when to move on or take questions based on body language and facial expressions…now I just stare at my own reflection on my monitor.” If a professor simply talks until the time is up, there is much room for Students to slack off, but some professors have quickly adapted to create digital breakout rooms and call on each student in the class to ensure they are engaged; some of my classes now require more participation than our in-person meetings!
The hypothesis is this: Online learning can serve its purpose but only if the platform administrator is willing to make it. If this is true, then what will happen once COVID-19 is under control? Does the administrator have to be a professor or can it be an automated program feeding content and assignments? What if they’re just pre-recorded lectures?
I find it unlikely that we’ll quickly revert to “standard” teaching. Many professors, even those who are Zoom savvy, have been forced to rely on digital checkmarks to ensure student engagements. Calling on students at random when its time to speak, in class assignments to be submitted by a certain times, etc. transitions the grading criteria from learning from a professor to being able to complete specific digital hurdles. If this is the case, then what becomes the roll of a good professor? Will we even need them? Or will readings and correlated assignments suffice?
A Tik Tok recently went viral featuring a slideshow of schools and a narrator quoting, “You thought you went to the best school in the northeast…now you go to an online school. You thought you went to an ivy league…now you go to an online school…” and so on and so fourth. While done with tongue and cheek, is the Tik Tok incorrect? If we lose the historic campuses and coveted network that create good universities, and professor-to-student interaction is diminished, what is the difference?
From an economic perspective, this changes everything. Prestigious institutions like Stanford and Harvard have opened up 100% free online courses available to everyone. Tuition has been exponentially rising over the years, and millions are deep into student debt. What happens to tuition costs if an institution doesn’t need a campus at all? If they can hire less experienced and less costly professors? Tuition could hypothetically cost as much as a Netflix subscription. Conversely, what would happen if an institution took a budget meant for a new building complex and used it to offer enormous wages for the best professors in the country and moved coursework online? Would people consider paying even half the price of Tulane’s tuition to take online classes with the best hand picked professors in the world and receive a diploma of equal validity? I believe so.
As positive as we want to think, we won’t be back to a normal for a while. Online learning will become more and more ingrained and normalized into our culture, and online learning products will gradually improve. I think to assume that once the pandemic does end things will snap back to normal is misinformed. There will be irreversible change in education, but only time will tell if traditional universities will remain or online education will adapt enough to become the new norm.
This piece was written for the class Alternative Journalism, which is taught by Kelley Crawford at Tulane University. The ongoing series, “Coping with Corona” is a live curriculum project where students investigate and report on the missed angles of Coronavirus coverage.