There is little to no reason to group students in this manner in an online environment. The space-time limitations that created the logic of sections simply don’t exist online. Instead of creating space and time-centered divisions, we need to think about building learner-centered networks. What would student-centered “sections” look like? I have previously argued that online classes could be identified as either totally asynchronous or requiring some level of synchronous interaction. As a starting point, this would be a better way of identifying how the class would work to the student than a random section number, and would furthermore set student expectations accordingly when they signed up for a particular course of instruction.
Personalizing instruction is also facilitated by a section-less system of learning. I try to tailor my instruction around the interests of a given student since that will provide a more meaningful instructional experience for him or her. Having a larger pool of students to choose from (through consolidating all of my sections) makes this far easier when it comes to group formation. Creating different ways to mix-and-match students while maintaining the ability to create working groups of learners would allow us to design more individualized pathways for learning.
This is not just a convenience factor. Creating systems based on student communities rather than sections would allow for a far more nuanced approach to creating learning centered on communities of practice and opens the doors to explorations of interdisciplinary approaches to learning. As DeAngelo points out, retention is greatly enhanced by students developing networks outside the traditional classroom. Sections divide learners arbitrarily. We need to be looking for network opportunities for them instead.
Sections also tend to wall off disciplines from one another. Allowing students to subscribe to a cohort of interdisciplinary instructors working together can reap huge benefits. For instance, I teach my government class as a design studio. Coordinating with English Composition, Design, and perhaps Student Success faculty, we could develop an integrated approach to a student’s (or preferably a learning community of students’) learning experience(s). Interdisciplinary approaches have been shown to lead to better outcomes.
Finally, as I argued in an earlier piece, focusing on smaller and shorter segments of learning, which getting rid of traditional sections would facilitate, makes our systems of learning much more antifragile. Small, focused learning communities are going to be much nimbler in the chaotic teaching/scheduling environments for the near- to medium-term future.
There are no doubt significant systemic hurdles around getting rid of the administrative convenience that sections offer. The current crisis, however, will not be sympathetic to those institutions that hold tightly to outdated shibboleths. Using sections as a tool for dividing up students and faculty largely for administrative convenience should be looked at carefully. There seems to be little logic pertaining to learning and retention that supports their continued existence. If anything, the opposite is true. In a digital world there is little administrative logic to continuing to use them either.
This logic extends beyond our current circumstances, however. As I argued in a previous piece that predates the pandemic, instruction will inevitably move toward a hybrid modality. With an online-focused hybrid schedule, physical environments will need to be scheduled on an ad hoc basis anyway so even when we return to a “new normal” sections can still start to be retired as a metric. Online communities of practice can be used to drive student sorting even in a hybrid model. The exigences of the pandemic are severely testing our institutions of higher learning. We can either collapse under the strain or use this tragedy as an opportunity to make learning better for our students. Developing strategies for phasing out traditional sections would allow us to focus on using quality to overcome adversity.