In an opinion piece published in EdSurge on April 15, “How a New College President Views the COVID-19 Crisis,” president Philomena V. Mantella of Grand Valley State University, lays out her thoughts on the COVID-19 crisis. President Mantella’s op-ed was published on the Wednesday during the final week of classes while faculty members were engaged in bringing to a close what has been an exceptional semester. Now that the dust has settled, it seems important to respond, from the standpoint of a university faculty member and with all due respect, to the main point of president Mantella’s op-ed.
Since arriving at GVSU in the fall, president Mantella has been an unapologetic advocate of online/remote learning, something many faculty worry stands in rather stark tension with the on-campus education grounded in the liberal arts that is the historical identity of GVSU—and arguably of higher education itself. From her op-ed, president Mantella’s view appears to be that the dramatic shift to online teaching that occurred this last semester has broken down all barriers to embracing online/remote instruction—and even that it has shown that it is somehow the inevitable pedagogy of the future.
That is not the way I see it, or how other faculty I talk to view this moment.
As the significance of the COVID-19 pandemic became clearer in early March, the decision was made—at GVSU as at most other universities around the country—that suspension of face-to-face classes would not mean suspension of the semester, but rather a move to online/remote instruction. I am proud to work with colleagues for whom this decision was a no-brainer: Of course the semester will continue. Of course education will go on. The life of the mind: inquiry, the pursuit of truth and learning, are as essential as respiration. They are essential during a pandemic. They are essential always. So, we sucked it up, did the hard work, and put in the time that it took to make this happen.
Faculty who had never taught an online lesson in their lives were suddenly making podcasts, Zooming, navigating online platforms and finding ways to adapt their material to the online format, while being as sensitive as possible to the changing needs and precarious situations of students. The whole university mobilized impressively to get the tasks done and, so far as it is possible to talk about success under conditions of academic triage in the midst of a pandemic, it was a success. Everyone at every level of the university, our new President and her office very much included, deserves credit for this.
Yet, it would be significant bad faith not to acknowledge, not just at my institution but at all institutions of higher learning, that the shift to online and remote education had serious educational costs. Things of value to the mission of any serious university were lost, and any full reckoning with the events of this last academic semester must confront this fact.
One set of costs includes simply the time, effort, stress and frustration that faculty and students alike had to live through as we triaged our semester and converted to the online format. Every task, from lecture to discussion to administering a quiz, had to be rethought and retooled, typically while mastering the archaic details of unfamiliar software or platforms.
Another and more fundamental set of costs are the significant losses of educational quality and of intellectual community that moving online caused. No course was as good this semester, no intellectual experience (whether student clubs, undergraduate conferences, research presentation days or department colloquia) was as good as it would have been in the ordinary face-to-face on-campus format. Connection with and among both students and faculty was deformed, curtailed, alienated and at times cut off completely. These are losses. They are intellectual losses and losses of community, losses to two essential ingredients of education and of the ongoing life of the mind that are the primary goals of a university.
I take no firm position here whether these costs, incurred by moving to online teaching in the midst of a pandemic, might be avoidable in some better-planned future version of online education. It would be mistaken to negatively judge the possibilities and limitations of online teaching as such based on the experiences of these last few months, or to reject it out of hand. However, it would be equally mistaken to declare this a victory for online education as a model for education going forward. That the online format makes education possible in a pandemic is no argument that it is a model we ought to embrace or valorize under ordinary conditions.
Seeking Calm Reflection
In her op-ed, however, president Mantella invokes a perceived broad consensus for “innovating with purpose” at GVSU and, in the Silicon Valley idiom of “disruption,” she suggests our current situation is the moment to “change some ‘tried and trues’ that are no longer true” and to “move from remote and distance delivery of education to intentionally shaped high-engagement online learning.” She suggests that a “more intentional” version of the current online format will help build “community” and “connection.” Now is the time to embrace these changes because “any planned pace of change we thought we needed for acceptance and viability within our institutions has been completely upended.” It seems clear that her view is that the shift to online teaching that occurred this last semester has somehow shown that it is and must be the pedagogy of the future.
In response, I respectfully ask president Mantella to please reconsider declaring either the victory or the necessity of online teaching. At least in this moment. At least on the basis of this evidence. That the online format makes education possible in a pandemic is no argument that it is a model we ought to embrace or valorize under ordinary conditions.
We all need time to reflect on this experience, to pick up the pieces and to sort out emotional overreaction from reasoned reflection and judgment. Please do not use the occasion of pandemic and triage to declare unilateral victory for one preferred version of the academy.
In turn I and others like me will refrain from using the same occasion to declare that version now demonstrated to be inferior to what we had just a few months ago, and could still have in the future. Please do not offer the promise of “connection” and “community” that on-line education holds out, such as it is, as an obvious or unproblematic substitute for the valuable connection and community that have actually been lost to it in the last months.
There is nothing inevitable in our current situation, no historical necessity bearing down upon us that requires an enthusiastic (or grim) march toward the online education future. Technologies make it possible to change the world, but it is human deliberation, values, judgment and consent—fragile as these things are—that determine how.
For now, let us acknowledge this situation for what it is: an exceptional one in which we are doing our best, and will for the duration. The pandemic has forced difficult decisions and extreme measures and may well force more. There are, no doubt, lessons to be learned from our current situation, and I hope that we will review those lessons—lessons about methods, costs and benefits, values and goals—calmly and thoroughly as the dust settles. It is precipitous to declare, at this early date, that the lessons have all been learned and that they are uniformly positive. For the reasons given above, I and many educators like me firmly disagree.