I teach Introduction to American Government at my local university. Like many college faculty, I have spent the last eight weeks teaching online. In addition, I had the joy of quarantining with our two college-age sons, who were also forced into online learning.
Here are some of my observations about various reasons pushing college learning online degrades the quality of instruction.
1. Damaging the Teacher-Student Relationship
On campus, I have many chances to interact with students. Most obviously, I can look them in the eye during lectures and receive instant feedback. When they become restless, or start to droop, or look up quizzically, I can make adjustments. There is no such interaction when I lecture to the microphone on my computer; I am simply transferring information.
My intro classes take place in a large lecture hall, with about 80 students on average. Nonetheless, I try to ask questions and include time for student participation. Helping students explore concepts and reach conclusions for themselves are important parts of the learning process.
Interactive digital platforms may not be as damaging with smaller, seminar-style classes. But for classes that are primarily lecture-based, with large student enrollment, spontaneous dialogue is just not possible online.
I also miss talking with students one-on-one, whether before class, after class, during office hours, or in the halls. Most students come to me with some problem or other, but we often end up talking about life outside of class: hobbies, family, career aspirations. These ad-hoc conversations are also non-existent online.
Teaching is a side hustle for me. I don’t do it for money—fortunately, because there is not much money in it. One of the biggest reasons I teach is because I enjoy interacting with and mentoring students. Online teaching has robbed me of this joy.
2. Damaging Relationships Between Students
When students come to class at a particular time and place, they create a unique experience that cannot be captured in a recording. The mere act of sitting next to each other, sharing physical objects like paper and pens, exchanging eye-rolls when the instructor says something outrageous—all of these micro-interactions can build into life-long relationships.
Again, this is difficult if not impossible to replicate online, especially in a large lecture class.
3. Eroding Student Engagement
For eight weeks, I have watched my college-age sons listen (or not listen) to pre-recorded lectures. When they watch a lecture — if they watch a lecture — it is ramped up to 1.5 to 2 times the speed.
While listening, they may be in bed, or in the bathroom. They are certainly multi-tasking: eating, talking, texting. When students instead sit in one place, together, in the presence of an instructor, there is a much greater likelihood they will be interested and engaged in the process of learning.
4. Erodes Student Discipline
One of the benefits of online classes is “flexibility.” Along with other instructors at my university, I was encouraged not to require students to be present at a specific place or time. Instead, we were encouraged to allow students to view and respond to online lectures at their convenience.
One of my sons was required to appear for a language class each morning, and remained fairly engaged. One of my sons was allowed to listen to lectures at his convenience, and was not engaged at all. As you might guess, flexibility usually leads inexorably to procrastination, especially among the young.
In my own classes, even though I gave students ample time to listen to the lectures and complete the associated assignments, many waited until the last minute (and beyond) to complete their work. Perhaps non-traditional or older students would exercise more discipline than freshmen in an introductory course. Nonetheless, I have found that online classes undermine the structure that supports real learning.
5. Encouraging and Enabling Cheating
In my large lecture class, grades are primarily based on periodic tests. I either personally monitor the students while they take their tests or use a proctor (who is better at catching cheaters than I am). This is fairly effective in preventing cheating.
In contrast, it is nearly impossible to prevent cheating online. Instructors with smaller classes that require original work rather than standardized tests may have an advantage here. But I have resigned myself to the fact that my students are going to collaborate and look up answers when completing my online assessments, perhaps even without listening to the recorded lectures first.
When cheating is easy, multiple problems appear. First, how do you accurately assess learning? Students who cheat may have no meaningful understanding of the material.
Second, how do you ensure that grades are not inflated, and that diligent students are appropriately recognized? Students who would otherwise put in the work have little incentive to do so. Even students who experience a pang of conscience over cheating still worry they will be unfairly prejudiced by not cheating. My sons and I have debated these issues ad nauseam over the last eight weeks.
6. Turning Learning Into a Transaction
Online classes strip learning down to a business transaction: students perform tasks for points and receive a grade. If the student cheats (which is likely), these tasks may involve nothing more than regurgitating an internet search. The problem is that college assignments are not meant to be ends in themselves; they are meant to gauge learning. Making classes “virtual” decreases the likelihood that learning will actually occur.
Obviously, students can learn many useful things online. One of my sons taught himself motorcycle repair in the time he saved by not watching lectures. Perhaps motorcycle repair will ultimately prove more valuable; only time will tell.
Many have critiqued American higher education for requiring classes that are not useful, that have no redeeming value. Perhaps online exposes a meaninglessness inherent in higher education already.
Nonetheless, some subjects—like American government—give students knowledge and skills they need to participate in society as free citizens. I take pride in introducing students to our shared history and shared values. I am best able to do this through real-life, relational instruction.
I have written about the challenges of in-person teaching in a screen-driven world. When classes themselves move online, the obstacles to learning are truly daunting.