Online classes will impoverish the university experience for students

Posted on August 25, 2020 in Education Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors

This is a shame, and greatly impoverishes the lives and learning of students. Looking at a talking head on Zoom is not the same as being in a room with a professor and classmates. Scrolling on a screen is not the equivalent of walking along the shelves of a library. Talking with classmates after a lecture is not the same as a social media chat. Hanging out in the school gym, cafeteria or student club is far more enriching and stimulating than staring at a screen.

Students come to university because they want to change: to become something or someone they are not yet. This transformation involves looking at the world in a new way and interacting with people who have a variety of world views and experiences. This is so much harder to accomplish virtually than face-to-face.

Online education is effective for a small set of students: those who are highly motivated, mature, and who already possess considerable experience learning online. Most undergraduates do not fall into this category.

There are reasons why classrooms — not bedrooms, basements and coffee shops — have remained the primary location for learning for millennia. Of course, online resources are important in teaching and learning at universities, but they don’t replace the physical classroom for the majority of students.

In the same way, Parliament continues to meet in person rather than virtually. This is because debate, deliberation and political exchange are richer and more effective in a live and face-to-face forum. Democracy would be diminished dramatically if all politicians were to merely submit recorded videos and statements of their views from now on.

Many universities see online education as an appealing growth market in that students located anywhere in the country and around the world can now complete a degree. Online education is also a cost-effective way to teach large numbers of students. After all, a set of lectures once recorded can be posted over and over to new cohorts of students.

At the moment, most universities charge the same tuition for a course offered on-campus as one taught virtually. On student transcripts there is no indication if a course or degree was completed online or in a face-to-face classroom. This will change.

In the not-too-distant future, post-secondary students and their parents will have to make a difficult choice: study fully online for a degree and pay lower tuition, or study face-to-face — and get all the benefits of doing so — while paying significantly higher tuition.

Given the dramatic and unexpected expansion of online learning, university students and taxpayers will be well served if governments and universities begin now to plan for the nature of postsecondary education in the decades to come.

Thomas Klassen is a professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration at York University, Toronto.

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