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Online Learning

Web-based teaching is simply not the same as face-to-face human interaction, says Alison Holmes
Published on April 1, 2020


On college campuses around the country, there is only one conversation: the immediate and massive shift to online teaching. However, as most schools have now come back from break and we are getting underway in this brave new world, spare a thought for those who work in international education.

Students who were abroad faced uncertainty and a profound lack of information and support as COVID-19 moved inexorably around the globe. Once they were ordered home they were presented with thin options. For example, take the not untypical student who was offered online classes at another university in the US that operated on a quarter system. Apparently, the program provider assumed that as the timing worked - ‘problem solved’. The only issue with that genius solution was that the online offering at the school was small and not remotely relevant to the student’s degree. Meanwhile, urgent questions about refunds, implications for financial aid and course credit transfers have been tossed into a black hole because, and to badly abuse George Orwell, such issues were reduced to a version of ‘international diseased and bad, domestic clean and good’.

Faculty have been asked to jump a hurdle made all the higher because online is simply not the same as face-to-face pedagogy (and that’s why many faculty, including yours truly, have resisted this mode of teaching). You can’t ask a student to ‘try this at home’ for a chemistry class, nor can you practice your Beethoven quartet via Zoom (no – really – you just can’t – the timing is simply not precise enough), and there’s a reason most plays are not a monologue – the magic of drama and of comedy is in the human mix. Experiential learning, service in the community and teacher training cannot be replicated online and you can hardly bring a student who was in Italy back to Stockton CA and tell them it’s the same. ‘Hey, you can see the Mona Lisa on your computer ...what’s the problem?’

The problem is what educators have known since the digital revolution began – human interaction online is simply not the same. Facial expressions and the time, space and ability to ask, respond, and engage not only verbally, but non-verbally, is limited and stilted. Written comments take more time to produce and the written word is not the same as something spoken. Tone, nuance, and detail are lost. What was a kindly jibe when said aloud becomes harsh and unkind commentary when read to oneself all alone. In effect, the essence of a good educator i.e. the ability and art of sensing the level of a student or the mood of a classroom and to adjust accordingly or deciding when to gently nudge a student that bit further or to let a question ride, has been trampled in the mad rush to online. The unstable internet connection, the freeze frame, the wobbling audio and fumbling for the stupid mute button before the moment is gone has crippled our ability to be sensitive, intentional and effective teachers.

This is not remotely to say there is no place for online education. There are many topics and programs that benefit hugely from adding online space to their repertoire. Similarly there are many students – certainly returning students or adult learners of various kinds – for whom the freedom to engage in an educational program at times of their choosing that fit their schedules and busy lives has been a godsend as they strive to gain a new skill or certification. However, those students are not freshmen, perhaps far away from home for the first time, many of them first generation students who have no one to advise them on the strange ways of college. These students need human interaction. They look to faculty and the entire campus for both curricular and non-curricular support as they work to find their way, find themselves, and make the most of their college career.

This will be a crucial moment for colleges. Acceptance letters have gone out and how students decide where they will go – and IF they will go at all – is the question hanging over many kitchen tables. Job insecurity will be eating into that college savings account. Health fears about big cities or hot spots will be running against many students’ dreams. Part of that process will be the idea that online education just isn’t the same. Why should I enroll someplace when I could be anyplace? For now, we are spending every waking moment telling students it IS the same. Stay with us. Stay here. But if the coronavirus has done anything it has put the lie to the idea that online is the same as being there. We will do what we must to deliver quality education to the students who find themselves caught in these strange times. We will do what we can to mitigate the disappointment and harsh let-down to those students and their families who have been planning for their child’s graduation – often for more years than the student has been on our campus. We will deal with the complicated issues of aid and credit and advising for classes we have no idea whether we can produce next year, but we cannot give back the most transformational elements of education as they have become the collateral damage of the coronavirus. Going forward, colleges will have to deal with the consequences of lower enrollments – certainly of international students – and there will doubtless be new and significant constraints on sending students out into the community and the world. Global citizenship as a core mission of higher education is at risk as social distancing collapses into seclusion.

On Fox News, Rebecca Grant recently argued “It’s increasingly clear that coronavirus ended globalization as we know it”. She goes on to undertake some serious China bashing, but the point is striking and the danger imminent. Globalization has ebbed and flowed across the centuries, always with uneven consequences and traveling with its constant companions: isolationism and cosmopolitanism. This moment is a powerful and frightening reminder of just how interconnected we have become. Yet for some those connections feel threatening. Disinformation and misinformation are given equal time to play across our screens. The spectacle of hoarding at the local market is replayed on the international stage as countries with plenty deny exports of vital goods including food to countries in need or haven to those literally at sea. If ever we needed a sense of a shared destiny – even with those we may not share anything else – this is that moment.

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