Schools and colleges in the United States have been severely challenged to deliver classes online during the COVID-19 crisis. While many teachers and schools have heroically adjusted to provide meaningful education, our rapidly-deployed remote learning solution still feels like a stopgap. Students, parents, and teachers have questioned the quality and value of the education they have been getting or giving since March, begging the question: is full tuition fair?
How bad could it get, in education? Analysts speculate that some portion of continuing college student population (perhaps as high as 20-30 percent) may opt out of fall classes. Worse still, for administrators, some students are questioning whether they should be paying full tuition when their school goes virtual, if they are not satisfied with temporary online learning and miss the many other benefits that campus life provides.
As education consumers, it feels like we rented a luxury car, but when we showed up to the rental place, we were given… a lesser car. And we are probably right to be frustrated.
What should students do? As an educator, I would never advocate that students drop out or interrupt their programs for what may ultimately be a painful, but short, period of disruption in their academic life. You don’t want to stop learning. You want students to safely continue, to persist in pursuits of the skills, knowledge, and credentials that will set them on course for future achievement.
At the same time, it’s possible that the COVID-19 crisis may cause a healthy reexamination of the value of education. Having all our in-person education suddenly deployed online may disrupt what we expect from education and how we want it delivered.
But why are students unhappy? One reason that consumers are skeptical about remote learning right now is that any program that’s delivered online really needs to be adapted to or designed for online. A successful online program is not created by trying to deliver the same class via Zoom that you delivered in Room 303. For it to be effective, content must be designed specifically for online delivery. Instructors and administrators need to think about how to deliver their course goals online. Faculty may need technical support and coaching, and students need technology and orientation so that they know what to expect. Most importantly, there has to be the right balance of teacher-student contact and meaningful work done by students independently (i.e.. homework) combined with online assessments that gauge whether students have actually mastered the skills or concepts taught.
These are basic considerations for fully online programs throughout our education system, but it goes without saying that none of those options or strategies were available to the vast majority of traditional institutions who had online delivery forced on them earlier this year.
Now that remote learning is continuing in many places into the fall, however, perhaps more instructors and administrators should be thinking long-term about how to adapt their courses to online, and how to use what they have learned from their first iterations of a class to make it better. Two online education strategies that could immediately help would include providing more instructional design support to faculty, along with making more use of asynchronous learning as opposed to screen time.
The larger question that still needs addressed, however, is about the value of college tuition in an era where college costs keep escalating and the average college student graduates with around $30,000 in loan debt. Should students be paying full tuition this fall for what they may feel is a lesser product? One reason college is so expensive is the well-documented idea that tuition at colleges today is used to pay for a wide range of services (the cafeteria, the football team, the semester abroad program) that no single student ever uses.
Proponents of online education have long argued that education can be unbundled. This is one of the reasons that online education should be more affordable than classroom education–because you are paying for the education – and not for access to the cafeteria, the sports stadium, or a semester in Paris.
If the debate about tuition costs can lead anywhere positive, I hope that it causes us to reexamine our priorities when it comes to the value of online vs. classroom-based education. Now, as an online school administrator, I must emphasize that I LOVE in-person education. There is no universe in which I want online learning to replace the classroom. In my ideal future, in-person education continues to be a mainstay, balanced by increasingly accepted, affordable, designed-for-online programs that provide equally or more effective options for students that want them.
If you are disillusioned by remote learning, consider that a mere 20 years after it began, it’s only beginning to demonstrate its potential. Education analyst Richard Garrett of Eduventures once argued that online learning would ultimately succeed when it began to offer not just convenience, but also high-quality outcomes and a great student experience. To Garrett’s list, I would also add “a more affordable option.”
When more online schools and colleges provide all four of those attributes, the sky is the limit. Think of all the adult learners we need to educate or upskill for a changing workplace whose lives are dominated by work and family. Think about the carbon footprint impact of not driving across town twice a week for your classes, but instead completing them safely and conveniently at home. Think about an educational experience providing the value you expect.
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