Online education is here to stay for colleges and universities: how can we improve it?



Courtesy of Faith Kirk

San José State University Faith Kirk taught writing and the humanities at her kitchen table during the pandemic’s transition to online education.

The rapid shift to online education in 2020 has forced all of us in higher education to rethink how to do what we do and why. These lessons, while messy and difficult, were well worth learning.

It is clear that in the approaching post-pandemic world, some version of online learning will be part of the fabric of most universities. And I think it’s good.

There have been many issues with how traditional universities have shifted to online education in 2020. Many students and faculty have struggled to access reliable Wi-Fi and technology. Most of us have found it difficult to use online tools for teaching and learning. We have all struggled to study and work in the same spaces where we live, raise children, and care for aging parents.

But when we focus only on these issues, we risk missing the big picture. Over the past year, I’ve learned a lot about what works in an online college course and what doesn’t. Like my colleagues, I paid even greater attention to the challenges my students overcome each semester as they work hard to graduate, and found strategies to support them.

Now is the time to harness that knowledge and start creating the kind of inclusive, high-quality online education that faculty can truly support. To do this, we need our universities to seriously invest in this effort and commit to offering online courses after the pandemic.

Historically, talking about online education in traditional institutions raises legitimate concerns about the privatization of public education. I can easily imagine a dystopian future in which the teaching work was simply handed over to for-profit EdTech companies or academic service providers. But so far, while some universities are outsourcing services, such as tutoring and mentoring, they remain public institutions and not for-profit corporations.

More recently, professors have rightly compared the pandemic-era fervor to embrace online education to what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism.” University of Manitoba academics argue that Covid-19 has created the conditions for companies to promote their products online and for administrators to promote policies that harm students and teachers. Clearly, any move to rapidly outsource online education to private companies is reactionary and poses a serious threat to the future of public education.

But, online course options also expand the access to university education that so many students desire. The fantasy of college life – of carefree students living and studying together on the grounds of a pristine, ivy-covered campus – does not correspond to reality for many students. My students have many commitments, from part-time jobs to caregiving responsibilities. Most of them come to campus by taking their classes on the train, bus or from a parked car. With the skyrocketing cost of rent in the Bay Area, they are struggling to find affordable local housing.

Online courses allow students to attend classes anywhere they can access a reliable Wi-Fi connection. They give students more flexibility in their busy schedules. Time they previously spent on the road to work may be better allocated to time for learning and accessing campus resources, such as meeting instructors during virtual office hours or attending live events. on the campus.

In August 2020, most of us at brick and mortar universities underestimated our students. We thought they would have a hard time passing the courses. We thought they would not attend the events. We thought they might give up.

We were wrong.

Our students were able to navigate online learning better than many instructors. In the state of San José, attendance at speakers’ events, readings and performances more than doubled in 2020 from previous years, perhaps because they were able to attend sibling care or in between. shifts. They not only did well in their classes, they stayed with us, signing up in the spring and then again in the fall.

Online learning will not solve all of our problems and will not work for all students. Studies by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and California State University have found that a significant number of students face challenges in meeting their basic needs, challenges made worse by the pandemic. A 2021 San José State Basic Needs Survey found that 41.5% of students faced housing insecurity and 29.6% faced food insecurity. In-person classes give these students the ability to access campus resources, such as secure buildings with Wi-Fi and pantries.

However, for many students and instructors, online courses provide a welcome alternative to traditional in-person learning environments. Rejecting online education entirely to keep privatization at bay means rejecting the needs of students and faculty who have found something valuable there and want to develop it further.

Now universities must give us the time, funds and training we need to create high quality inclusive online courses that we can be proud to offer.


Faith Kirk teaches writing and humanities in San José State University. She is a Public Voices member of the Op-Ed project.

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