As the nation braces for what could become the worst pandemic in a century, the stock market has been a roller coaster, states have closed restaurant dining rooms, the tourism sector has been devastated, and many workers (including my own adult children) are worried about their jobs.
Although we had heard about the virus when it was in China, then Iran and Italy, it still seemed to happen so fast. It came to Washington state, and there were some issues with cruise ships, but mid-America seemed unaffected. Then, the NCAA and the NBA made moves that brought the severity of the matter home. Soon came school shutdowns, a travel ban to Europe, the closing of Broadway, and more.
As a college professor, I’m one of the lucky ones. My job is not in immediate jeopardy. Thanks to modern technology, universities have even figured out a way to keep functioning. Like many others, my university extended spring break for one week so that the professors could be trained on how to present a class online. We’ll start this week.
That truly is amazing. It’s an option that would not have been available a generation ago. I’m not sure it would have worked even a decade ago. Today’s distance education, however, is both sophisticated and accessible because of the proliferation of the web and digital technology.
The concept of distance learning began in the mid-19th century with correspondence courses, according to OnlineSchools.org. The first official correspondence education program, the “Society to Encourage Home Studies,” was established in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1873. Back then, instructional materials were mailed back and forth between students and professors. Such courses were still in place into the 1980s. (I once took one on the topic of religious history.)
In the 1950s, the University of Houston was the first to offer televised college classes on VHS channel 8, KUHT (which eventually morphed into HoustonPBS). Calling itself the “The Channel That Changes You,” KUHT had courses that included “Beginning Biology” for its viewers. Most courses were broadcast in the evening so that people who worked during these pre-DVR days could watch them at night. Of course, this was essentially one-way communication: lectures from an instructor to the viewers.
Advances in computer technology made immediate communication possible, and that changed the game. In 1989, the University of Phoenix launched the first fully online bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Today, almost all universities offer some online courses. Even the most elite institutions offer online programs that are rigorous and respected. The University of California–Berkeley, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) all offer free online classes (open courseware) that feature video lectures and quizzes taken directly from classroom discussions.
No colleges, however, have gone through the process that many universities now face: mid-semester conversion to online classes from standard classes across the curriculum.
Adapting to Circumstances
Changing some classes will be easy enough. They are lecture-based and can be presented much like the early television classes from the University of Houston. Others, however, are much more complicated. How does one instruct dance or music, conduct a lab, or teach medical and dental skills? What about things like student teaching? I have a seminar that is based largely on classroom discussion, and that’s presenting a challenge.
Programs such as Zoom, Twen, Blackboard, and others provide some options, but at our university, the faculty has been asked to present courses in an asynchronous manner. It seems that when online courses are presented “live,” it can overwhelm internet capabilities, and students can miss the content. So, recorded presentations are preferable.
When the move to online classes first became clear, several internet-based corporations stepped up to offer free or low-cost assistance to schools and students. Several publishers also agreed to make electronic textbooks available to students. Unfortunately, the demand has been overwhelming, and some companies have had to withdraw their offers. This is uncharted territory for everyone.
Providing internet access to all students is a concern for most public universities. Not all of our students own a computer, while others may not have internet access at home. We have been able to provide “hot spots” to some students in need, but local internet providers don’t have adequate inventory to help everyone. Unfortunately, the coffee shops that many students rely upon for wireless internet are being closed in many states.
No one knows how this virus will play out or what the final human and economic toll will be. As such, one is hesitant to think beyond this point in the process, but it’s hard for a college professor not to wonder about the impact of this migration to online classes that so many students and faculty are now making.
Will the students learn as much and as well as they do in traditional classrooms? Will they do their work? According to some reports, workers are more productive at home than in the office. Are college students likely to react the same way?
Of course, what it means to be a college student may change. As courses are moving online, dorms are being vacated. At my university, even those with apartments in town are being encouraged to move back home. No longer will these students be surrounded by friends their own age. No more fraternity or sorority parties. No concerts. In fact, bars and restaurants are closing down around campus—and even in the home towns.
College friends will stay in touch with their phones and their computers, but there will be fewer distractions from studying and doing homework.
The perception of professors and university officials may also change. Many have been hesitant to embrace online learning. Will that change? Perhaps they’ll be unhappy, and this experiment with online education will be limited to exigent circumstances. On the other hand, what if the result is to embrace widespread online education? (One professor has recorded a theme song for the shift).
Online classes are easier and less expensive to deliver than the traditional classroom experience. Parents and other taxpayers may conclude that this is a more cost-effective way to educate college students. Already there are some student-athletes who take all or almost all of their classes online so that they can travel and compete throughout the semester. Would sports and other extracurricular activities continue to exist if all classes go online?
There are more important aspects of this crisis than its impact on higher education, but educating our future doctors, engineers, teachers, and others is not an inconsequential matter. I guess we should take some comfort in knowing that a lot of smart and caring people are working hard to make this work. I’m witnessing it up close.
The Epoch Times refers to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, as the CCP virus because the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup and mismanagement allowed the virus to spread throughout China and create a global pandemic.
Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.