The Best in Education Wasn’t Lost When Colleges Went Online

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The abrupt move of residential colleges to online education precipitated by the coronavirus crisis earned them much more criticism than appreciation. Some of higher education’s most respected leaders have gone out of their way to make the case that colleges must reopen in the fall by pointing out that the “fierce intellectual debates” that occur when students and faculty are together “just aren’t the same on Zoom.”

Students have also been expressing their dissatisfaction. One news report noted that “three out of four surveyed students say they are disappointed with the learning experience after their college classes moved online. As campuses began shutting down in the middle of March, this early data reveals that for the overwhelming majority of students, the transition has not gone well.” Another article highlighted unhappy students’ efforts to get tuition refunds and college admission officers’ worries that such dissatisfaction will result in significant enrollment declines unless colleges can resume something close to normal operations in the fall.

I do not discount such reports and observations. And I would not trade gathering with my students in a seminar room for a Zoom class. Moreover, I have heard about my students’ profound sense of loss in almost every virtual advising session and in my online office hours.

That loss is not just a response to our failure to replicate the dynamism of an in-person classroom. It also registers how much students value the full experience of campus life and what college offers in the way of support and encouragement, friendship and joy. They — and I — miss the intense community and sense of being in something important together that characterizes classes in small, residential liberal arts colleges.

But there is another side of the story that needs to be told, even as we acknowledge the struggles of college teachers to help students learn and grow under this spring’s difficult circumstances. Despite American higher education’s well-documented problems, the loss registered by students needs to be recognized as an indication that our colleges and universities are doing many things right. By creating an intellectual and social community for students, colleges and universities are instilling the values of listening generously, of staying with difficult problems until they are solved and of taking into account the experiences of peers and teachers in the shared work of creating new knowledge.

Much of that process did not stop when classes went online. Teaching seminars like I did during the semester in “exile” afforded me the chance to carry on that work with a manageable number of students. And, while the synchronous world of the Zoom classroom was not without its challenges for both me and my students, we lost little of the intensity of our classroom debates. My students still listened carefully to, and offered precise renditions and reformulations of, their classmates’ arguments. In their own spaces, they seemed to muster the courage to venture creative readings of difficult texts and to be just as playful and irreverent as they were when we were in a shared classroom space.

What struck me most in my Zoom conversations with students this semester was their evident recognition of and gratitude for those things. Many of my students paid tribute to their teachers’ dedication and registered appreciation for the ingenuity and creativity they witnessed in the world of virtual teaching. They knew that their teachers were thrust into a new and unfamiliar medium and that many of them never let up trying to help students learn and grow. Others simply noted how much they appreciated the “sense of normalcy” that their online class provided at a time when so much else felt so abnormal.

We know that success in the college classroom does not automatically translate to the online world. But just as the investment of teachers in the success of their students fuels their desire to learn when they are on campus, that investment matters all the more in the online world. In that world, community doesn’t happen organically as it often does when students gather face-to-face to tackle intellectual problems.

As a result, teachers have to be ever more intentional about connecting with students and communicating their investment and belief in them. They have to invite their students to their virtual office hours rather than waiting for them to show up and, in every conversation, connect with them about their lives, not just their academic work. Students need that connection even more in the virtual world than they do when they are on campus. Encouraging and persuading students that they can succeed and master course material is especially important when students can’t as easily access support from their peers.

A few years ago, a graduating senior passed on to me some wisdom about what students value in their teachers: I should always remember that students don’t care how much their teachers know until they know how much their teachers care. That advice is ever more important when we teach our students at a distance.

Letting students know that we care matters more than any nifty technological tricks that the online world might offer, because it is the thing that helps them recreate the sense of community and connection that defines their on-campus lives.

I hope that when fall comes, I will be able to welcome students back to campus. But whether in person or online, I will be deeply glad to be back in their presence. The world needs all the talent, ingenuity and irreverence that our students have to offer. While there is no perfect substitute for what residential colleges provide, much of the work of nurturing those skills and dispositions can be realized online.

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