Today’s Awkward Zoom Classes Could Bring a New Era of Higher Education

Sep 10, 2020

The fall semester of 2020 is like nothing we have seen before in higher education. Most colleges and universities in the United States are conducting classes either partly or fully online. Many students have chosen to defer or to forego their education completely. Many colleges and universities will suffer extreme financial stress; some–up to 345 colleges, according to one recent estimate–could be forced to close. Faculty are likely to face layoffs unprecedented in the history of U.S. higher education.

These seismic changes are both a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic and a long-delayed response to demographic and economic shifts. But they are also–subtly, and critically–the result of technological change. In fact, if we pull back from the immediate horrors of this moment, the move to online learning has actually been underway since around 2010, when universities and private entrepreneurs first began to experiment with Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.

These early MOOCs didn’t quite work—or at least they didn’t work well enough to present any real threat to the mainstream providers of traditional, campus-based higher education. But the pandemic has now forced this change; forced the entire landscape of higher education to embrace the technologies of online learning. And as these technologies ripple through the system, they will change it—and us—in fundamental ways.

To put this transformation in perspective, it’s useful to recall how other technologies evolved from the moment of their inception. In the early days of radio, for example, its proponents didn’t know quite what to do with it. The first listeners just listened, building receivers that pulled random frequencies from the skies. Then they began to broadcast whatever was at hand—preachers put their sermons “on the air;” amateur musicians played into the ether. There was no business model for radio until the 1920s—more than two decades after its invention—when advertisers first realized the commercial potential of a popular listening audience. Similarly, when film technologies first became possible in the late 1890s, movie makers did the only thing that made sense at first: they filmed pre-existing circus acts, or theatrical plays. Only later did movie makers begin to write and edit their own narrative scripts, creating what we now regard as the modern motion picture.

Online learning is arguably now in the middle of its own evolution, morphing from the earliest MOOCs, which, like early movies, were essentially just filmed classes, into something very different. The awkwardness of last semester’s Zoom sessions is almost certainly just a way-station on this journey—a hasty adaptation to what will inevitably become a very different model for higher education.

So what have we learned so far?

The first and most obvious lesson is that not all classroom formats translate easily onto Zoom. Lectures work, especially if the instructor is particularly compelling. Small-scale seminars can be intimate and powerful. But laboratory instruction is harder—as are other hands-on teaching methods.

Second, the basic configuration of Zoom–which, after all, was not designed as a pedagogical tool–introduces layers of complexity into the teaching process. Students’ faces slip from one screen to the next as new people join in. They disappear into a tiny side panel once anything is shared. Unmuting becomes a weary standard of the class period (“can you hear me now?”) And everything in everyone’s background–the dogs, the posters, the siblings, the furniture–melds into a visual cacophony. On Zoom, the peripheral truly takes over.

Worse, one of the things this peripheral reveals are the sharp socio-economic differences that still mark and define American students; differences that are harder to see (or at least easier to ignore) on physical campuses. Some students are obviously and undeniably sitting by the pool at their parents’ home, or on a breezy patio overlooking the sea. Others are jostling for table space in a crowded apartment, or dealing constantly with iffy wi-fi. Zoom lays bare the inequities we so often try to hide.

Finally, for most students, being online means not being on campus, and therefore missing the myriad of social experiences that have come to define so much of an American college education: football games, frat parties, a cappella concerts, and late-night dormitory debates. None of them are necessarily integral to a college degree. Most of them do not exist, or at least don’t figure nearly as significantly, at colleges and universities elsewhere in the world, or at the non-residential community colleges that educate more than 85 percent of American students. But at many of the country’s most prominent institutions, college has become the “college experience,” a bundled package of education-plus-everything-else. Nearly all of these auxiliary functions disappear online, which is why our students are so eager to return.

Not everything, though, is bad or even worse. Indeed, the forced march to Zoom has also forced colleges and universities to wrestle at last with the incipient promise of educational technologies; with the power that was evident, if not yet realized, in the early MOOCs. Much of that power has to do with scale–the ability to take a single course, even a single lecture, and share it across a vast universe of learners. But some also comes from the strange intimacy of the small screen, and from the possibilities of collapsing both time and space.

Even before the pandemic hit, higher education was beginning to realize how online formats could amplify the reach of individual courses and instructors, alleviating—or undermining—the need for every campus to host its own version of similar material. Since 2012, for example, more than two million people have signed up for a free online version of Harvard’s introductory computer science course; in the spring of 2020, as colleges across the country shut down, enrollments at Coursera, the online learning platform that offers free and low-cost courses from well-known universities, were four to five times higher than usual, and the company reported that more than 3,000 universities across the world had expressed interest in putting their own courses online. As these trends continue, they will undoubtedly weaken colleges without the resources to mount online courses of their own. But they will also widen access to some of the world’s best educators, and will enable more resource-constrained institutions to re-bundle their own offerings in new and less expensive ways.

Meanwhile, if large-scale lectures work well online, so too do more personal encounters. Office hours, for instance, migrate easily. Bringing in guest speakers works remarkably well, allowing faculty to introduce a wide range of voices into their classroom conversations. On the screen, everyone can see and hear and participate. As we grow accustomed to the format, the traditional model of being captive to our physical classroom–to expensive rooms and buildings constructed just for people to sit in–may increasingly feel as quaint as the one-room schoolhouse.

The bigger changes, though, are yet to come. In the United States, our most prominent educational structures are still essentially based on a medieval model. We carefully select those we wish to admit. We wear robes and hats upon graduation. We concentrate our teaching on four short years of a young person’s life. And we still break for what used to be the harvest season. We are caught, in other words, in an anachronistic model, one that is too rigid, too expensive and too elitist for our current moment in history. We’ve known this, at some level, for a while. But by forcing the entire higher education sector to grapple with new technologies of teaching, the pandemic will inevitably force us to change the structures of education as well.

What will this new world look like? It’s likely, for one thing, to be more consolidated, with smaller numbers of colleges creating the content that can now be delivered, at scale, online. It’s likely that to be increasingly un-bundled, with the once-standard package (four years, on campus, with education plus everything else) broken into a myriad of more discrete and specific offerings. It’s likely to be distributed over a large segment of a learner’s life, And it’s likely, alas, to become even more bifurcated, with small groups of students still selecting (and paying for) the bundled undergraduate experience, and others pushed into more of an a la carte model. Our physical campuses, like cathedrals of an earlier age, could become historical relics—cherished, yes, and still used, but no longer central to the educational mission. Our current rosters of activities and associated administrators are likely to shrink.

As these changes sweep across the educational landscape, much will inevitably be lost. Many schools will not survive. Many faculty members, even at surviving schools, may find themselves teaching in ways that feel awkward and foreign and forced. But even if the world of Zoom morphs quickly into something else; even if a vaccine were to miraculously allow campuses to return to something like normalcy, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has accelerated a technological shift that can no longer be held at bay.

The challenge will be to imagine how best to shape this change. Like the movie makers and radio broadcasters at the turn of the last century, our job is not to wrest the old system onto a new platform, but rather to capture what was best of the old order—the intimacy, the personal connections, the beauty of young people finding themselves and their voices—and then prod it gently but intelligently into the future.

Our job will be to construct entirely new pedagogies and curricula, designing them from the outset to be delivered digitally, and across a more varied set of learners. Our job will be to recognize the vast opportunities that are unleashed when time and space are no longer constraints; when visitors can beam into conversations from anywhere, and classrooms disappear. Most critically, our job is to acknowledge the inequities that mark our existing structures of higher education, and then harness the power of digital technologies to imagine something better; something that breaks the strangleholds of physical capacity and high fixed costs to deliver education that is affordable, accessible, and intellectually exciting.

Technology alone won’t give us these solutions. It never does. But the tools of online learning are undeniably powerful, even in this early stage. As we use them to claw our way through the current crisis, we need to set our sights not on how we return to the old normal, but rather what a new normal might, and should, be.


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