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virtual education
A PhD candidate at Harvard University tilts his screen while teaching an online class from his dorm. Credit: (Photo by Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

A professor at Loyola University New Orleans taught his first virtual class from his courtyard, wearing his bathrobe and sipping from a glass of wine. Lafayette College showed faculty how to make document cameras at home using cardboard and rubber bands.

Hamilton College set up drive-up Wi-Fi stations for faculty members whose connections weren’t reliable enough to let them upload material to the internet. And students in a musicology course at Virginia Tech were assigned to create TikTok videos.

The disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic has prompted cobbled-together responses ranging from the absurd to the ingenious at colleges and universities struggling to continue teaching even as their students have receded into diminutive images, in dire need of haircuts, on videoconference checkerboards.

But while all of this is widely being referred to as online higher education, most of it isn’t. And as for predictions that it will trigger a permanent exodus from brick-and-mortar campuses to virtual ones, all indications – so far – are that it probably won’t.

“Online education is using digital technologies to transform the learning experience. That is not what is happening right now. What is happening now is we had eight days to put everything we do in class onto Zoom.”

Vijay Govindarajan, professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business

“What we are talking about when we talk about online education is using digital technologies to transform the learning experience,” said Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. “That is not what is happening right now. What is happening now is we had eight days to put everything we do in class onto Zoom.”

There will be some important lasting impacts, though, experts say: Faculty may incorporate online tools, to which many are being exposed for the first time, into their conventional classes. And students are experiencing a flexible type of learning they may not like as undergraduates, but could return to when it’s time to get a graduate degree.

Related: Online higher education isn’t winning over students forced off campus by the coronavirus

Whether these trends accelerate the wholesale transformation of higher education is unclear; what is more certain is the integration of technology into it.

This semester “has the potential to raise expectations of using these online resources to complement what we were doing before, in an evolutionary way, not a revolutionary way,” said Eric Fredericksen, associate vice president for online learning at the University of Rochester. “That’s the more permanent impact.”

Real online education lets students move at their own pace and includes such features as continual assessments so they can jump ahead as soon as they’ve mastered a skill,  Fredericksen and others said.

Conceiving, planning, designing and developing a genuine online course or program can consume as much as a year of faculty training and collaboration with instructional designers, and often requires student orientation and support and a complex technological infrastructure.

“Not surprisingly, when we really do this, it does take more than seven or eight days,”  Fredericksen said wryly.

If anything, what people are mistaking now for online education — long class meetings in videoconference rooms, professors in their bathrobes, do-it-yourself tools made of rubber bands and cardboard — appears to be making them less, not more, open to it.

“The pessimistic view is that [students] are going to hate it and never want to do this again, because all they’re doing is using Zoom to reproduce everything that’s wrong with traditional passive, teacher-centered modes of teaching,” said Bill Cope, a professor of education policy, organization and leadership at the University of Illinois.

This semester “has the potential to raise expectations of using these online resources to complement what we were doing before, in an evolutionary way, not a revolutionary way.”

Eric Fredericksen, associate director for higher education at the Center for Learning in the Digital Age, University of Rochester

Undergraduates already seemed lukewarm toward virtual higher education; only about 20 percent took even one online course in the fall of 2018, the consulting firm Eduventures estimates.

If they didn’t like that, they definitely don’t like what they’re getting this semester.

Related: Canceled research, sports, recitals — college students are coping with more than closed campuses

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

More than 75 percent said they don’t think they’re receiving a quality learning experience, according to a survey of nearly 1,300 students by the online exam-prep provider OneClass. In a separate poll of 14,000 college and graduate students in early April by the website, which rates schools and colleges, 67 percent said they didn’t find online classes as effective as in-person ones.

Among college-bound high school seniors, fewer than a quarter said in December that they were open to taking even some of their college courses online, Eduventures reported; by the end of March, after some had experienced virtual instruction from their shutdown high schools, fewer than one in 10 polled by said they would consider online college classes.

Sentiments like these suggest there’s little likelihood that students will desert their real-world campuses for cyberspace en masse. In fact, if there’s a silver lining in this situation for residential colleges and universities, it’s that students no longer take for granted the everyday realities of campus life: low-tech face-to-face classes, cultural diversions, libraries, athletics, extracurricular activities, in-person office hours and social interaction with their classmates.

More than 75 percent of students don’t think they’re getting a quality learning experience this semester.

“The beauty of a residential education has never been more apparent to people,” said Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University.

But advocates for true online instruction say that students’ experience of taking courses on their own schedules over mobile platforms may come back to them later, when they’re ready to move on to graduate or professional educations.

Related: Choosing pass/fail grades may help college students now, but could cost them later

Online higher education “is a thin diet for the typical 18-year-old,” said Richard Garrett, chief research officer at Eduventures. “But today’s 18-year-olds are tomorrow’s 28-year-olds with families and jobs, who then realize that online can be useful.”

Already, more than half of American adults who expect to need more education or training after this pandemic say they would do it online, according to a survey of 1,000 people by the Strada Education Network, which advocates for connections between education and work.

It isn’t entirely students who will move this needle, observers say. It’s also faculty.

Even those who had long avoided going online have had to do it this semester, in some form or other. And they may have the most to learn from the experience, said Michael Moe, CEO of GSV Asset Management, which focuses on education technology.

“The beauty of a residential education has never been more apparent to people.”

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University

Along with their students, faculty were “thrown into the deep end of the pool for digital learning and asked to swim,” Moe said. “Some will sink, some will crawl to the edge of the pool and climb out and they’ll never go back in the pool ever again. But many will figure out what to do and how to kick and how to stay afloat.”

Related: How do you manage college online — quarantined with eight people?

If there’s anyone who’s banking on this, it’s the ed tech sector. More than 70 percent of such companies have been offering products and services to schools and colleges free or at steep discounts this semester, anticipating sales later, according to the consulting firm Productive.

Cengage, for example, is providing free subscriptions to its online textbooks, and says it has seen a 55 percent increase in the number of students who have signed up for one. Coursera is providing 550 colleges and universities with free access to its online courses.

“Administrators and educators are reframing their attitudes,” said John Rogers, education sector lead at the $5 billion Rise Fund, which is managed by the asset company TPG and  invests in ed tech. “That really is the difference-maker. The pace of adoption of those tools will accelerate.”

People resist new ideas until external shocks force them to change, said Govindarajan, who cites as an example the way World War II propelled women into jobs that had traditionally been done by men. “We are at that kind of inflection point.”

Faculty, he said, will ask themselves, “ ‘What part of what we just did can be substituted with technology and what part can be complemented by technology to transform higher education?’ ”

Universities should consider this semester an experiment to see which classes  were most effectively delivered online, he said — big introductory courses better taught through video-recorded lectures by faculty stars and with online textbooks, for example, which could be shared among institutions to lower the cost.

Students who want classes best provided face to face, such as those in the performing arts or that require lab work, would continue to take them that way.

“Let’s take advantage of this moment to start a larger conversation” about the whole design of higher education, Govindarajan said.

“We had better not lose this opportunity.”

This story about virtual education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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