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My university, like many others, has recently moved to remote teaching in response to the corona virus situation. In my department, the faculty have taken the lead on finding and adopting solutions to the difficulties posed by the transition. I am a postdoc and not directly involved in a lot of the big changes. But I wonder if the faculty are sealing their fate, being so helpful when there is a counterparty, the administration, that may not have the faculty's best interests at heart (note, I have no direct knowledge either way).

Specifically, barring any big disasters in remote teaching these next weeks/months, I would guess 1) smaller schools close to insolvency, many of which have closed these last few years, would instead have an opportunity to cut costs by dispensing with or heavily decreasing in-person instruction, without facing the PR issues or other pushback that would otherwise bring, and 2) even in schools with secure finances, or where it is unrealistic to get rid of in-person instruction, professors would lose a lot of bargaining power in any negotiations with the administration, since they will be regarded as that much less necessarily. Possibly the next few weeks/months will demonstrate that the professors are in fact less necessary, and remote learning is perhaps preferable. I am not really asking about that, my question is more selfish as someone going on the job market soon. Are these outcomes likely? This type of concern must be on the radar of professors' unions, no?

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    While remote learning has its place, thinking that it is a 1-for-1 replacement for in person interaction flies in the face of decades of research and experience in communication effectiveness. – Jon Custer Mar 20 at 21:31
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    Are you assuming that this semester of forced remote learning will be a success? What is more likely, in my view, is that it will be a fiasco almost everywhere, and students will realize that it is much more difficult to learn stuff from a video without proper support. After all, MOOCs have been available for years already, and they have not put universities out of business yet. – Federico Poloni Mar 20 at 21:47
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    @FedericoPoloni I am not assuming that ("I am not really asking about that"). It could be a fiasco but not so much that administrators don't take the opportunity to cut costs or gain leverage. Conversely things could hum along and professors unions could ensure that everything goes back to normal. So I guess my question is as much about institutional actors and their likely responses. – Hasse1987 Mar 20 at 22:46
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    @Hasse1987 already heard the complaint from a few students “we paid for in-class face-to-face” tuition. – Solar Mike Mar 21 at 4:39
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    @AzorAhai Online teaching can get rid of the buildings. Faculty can be hired in locations with a low cost of living, reducing salaries. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 21 at 9:10
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Well, based on the 3 institutions I have close contact with, their attempts in the past few weeks hardly represent a shining example of hugely successful online learning! It feels more like the Keystone Kops!

That bit of snark out of the way, effective teaching in the online/MOOC/e-channel, etc. is not easy, and making the transition between a face to face course and an effective online course requires a lot of thought and a lot of design a prep, which of course no-one has has time to do this time around. So my snark was not meant as a true criticism, but at the same time, it means that mainstream universities' efforts in the balance of this semester are themselves unlikely to make anyone -- teachers or learners -- say, "hey, that went really well; let's dispense with classroom instruction altogether".

That being said, I do think this will strongly accelerate the shift towards e-learning in the medium- and long-term, and that in 2 ways.

  1. In the long term, this will make e-learning a much more mainstream offering that students and faculty will become more comfortable exploring and integrating into the curriculum. Forced immersion brings familiarity and less fear. Up to now, in North America at least, we tended to have old-school in-person institutions, a few more e-learning focused disruptor institutions, and a select few dabbling in MOOCs layered on top of their usual approach. There was a lot of mutual mistrust. That will lessen. And just like a greater degree of teleworking throughout the economy, with the Pandora's box on it opened, will persist past current social isolation, so will demand for -- and willingness of faculty to explore -- e-learning.

  2. Next year, there will be a lot of financially and emotionally wounded students, whose life plan took a pretty big hit. Some will be keen and able to return to their university campuses and continue as before. Some won't be, and when they get their affairs in order a few years later, in a world that will have lived through months of forced virtual work and socialization, they will probably be keener to explore online offerings than they were previously. And the more they start work somewhere and become mature learners, or the more straitened their financial circumstances become, the more they will seek out good-value-for-money education with schedule and geographic flexibility, and the less they'll be keen to return and pay for the conventional on-campus student experience. Of course that won't apply to all, but I suspect to enough that it will make a difference at the macro level.

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  • " unlikely to make anyone -- teachers or learners -- say" I had in mind a third group, administrators, saying that. And I could see students saying it as well, if administrators make it attractive financially to them. – Hasse1987 Mar 25 at 21:24
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I think that outcome is unlikely, but not impossible over time. There are too many advantages of personal interaction in a more traditional setting to simply let it go. I don't have figures, but think that successful completion of something like a degree is much more likely with face to face interaction with experts than with internet delivery of material.

All of the world knowledge, other than very advanced and recent developments, is available on line. But people still need guidance and they need individual feedback on their learning.

The nature of a university education may change, of course, incorporating more online resources, but my prediction is that the traditional university and all it offers has a long future.

And note that a university does more than teach undergraduates. It provides a collaborative environment for research and the training of scholars. If we go to a mass market approach with only a few providers (rather than the thousands we have now) the rest of that could easily be lost.

People have a lot of trouble learning without support. A few can get by on only their individual personal drive, but most require a scholar-guide that they can interact with. Online education does a poor job of that. And a mass market approach will make it worse.

Of course, the current situation is also an experiment. We shall see how many successfully complete the year, compared to a standard situation. I worry that many will have problems.

Note that successful online education (not just individual courses) has a similar student to staff ratio to classroom education. The ration in CS50 at Harvard, for example, with hundreds of students, has a ratio of about 20 students to each staff person.

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