Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed: Coronavirus and the Great Online-Learning Experiment, by Jonathan Zimmerman (University of Pennsylvania):
In 1993, as Louisiana State University made its first steps toward online instruction, its student newspaper, The Daily Reveille, issued a stark warning about the future. "A university is a place where the knowledge of one generation is passed on to the next, and this cannot be done by machine," the paper declared. "Information can be found in a computer, but only by the human touch is the knowledge of generations transmitted."
Was the paper right? Nearly 30 years later, we still don’t know. But this year’s biggest news story provides us with an opportunity to find out, if we’re wise enough to seize it.
I’m talking about the coronavirus crisis, of course, which has led dozens of institutions in recent weeks to cancel in-person classes and replace them with online instruction. An important question is whether the move to online learning is good or bad for students, and we will soon have tons of new evidence that we could use to answer it. But do we even want an answer? To me, that’s the biggest question of all.
Since the LSU newspaper issued its warning, online instruction has become a staple of American higher education. By 2016, roughly six million students — or about a third of all students in the United States — were taking at least one online course. ...
What were they learning? It’s hard to tell. In the 1990s, the first set of studies found little difference in academic achievement between people who took face-to-face, online, and hybrid courses. But this research was marred by the problem of self-selection: Students who chose online courses were probably more comfortable in that format and tended to perform better in it. ...
[W]hen students are surveyed, they point to convenience as the most positive attribute of online instruction: You can tune in at any time, sandwiching courses around work and family duties. But faculty members question whether they’re good education, and with good reason. There just isn’t enough solid evidence to know.
That brings us back to the coronavirus, which has created a set of unprecedented natural experiments. For the first time, entire student bodies have been compelled to take all of their classes online. So we can examine how they perform in these courses compared to the face-to-face kind, without worrying about the bias of self-selection.
It might be hard to get good data if the online instruction only lasts a few weeks. But at institutions that have moved to online-only for the rest of the semester, we should be able to measure how much students learn in that medium compared to the face-to-face instruction they received earlier. ...
we owe it to our students — and to ourselves — to find out. Refusing to do so isn’t just a lost opportunity; it’s a violation of our most sacred trust. We are scholars, and our job is to know. Shame on us if we fall down on it.
For complete TaxProf Blog coverage of the coronavirus, see here.