Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed: Plexiglass Won’t Save Us, by Jeffrey J. Selingo (Arizona State):
Colleges have frittered the summer away on audacious and absurd reopening plans. It’s time to embrace remote learning instead. ...
This spring we saw something that few people could have ever predicted — colleges across the country abruptly shifting, almost overnight, to digital education. But the pivot in response to the coronavirus pandemic was largely haphazard and make-do, with faculty members and institutions duct taping together learning-management systems and Zoom in order to finish out the semester.
Not surprisingly, students and faculty members didn’t love the experience. In a survey of over 3,000 students in the U.S. and Canada by Top Hat, an education-technology company, nearly 80 percent of respondents said their online courses lacked the engagement of in-person classes. Half said online was worse than face-to-face instruction; 16 percent said it was a lot worse.
So you might expect, since there is still so much uncertainty about the pandemic, that colleges this summer would be putting most of their efforts toward creating better digital courses for the fall. But that hasn’t been the case. Instead, the prevailing strategy at most institutions is to do almost anything possible to get back to in-person classes. That’s why we’ve seen a preponderance of “return to campus” or “reopening campus” task forces.
Their plans teeter between the audacious and the absurd. Tiny Colby College aims to administer 85,000 Covid-19 tests in the fall semester at a cost of $10 million. The Community College of Baltimore County proposes to prop open all interior doors to minimize the touching of door handles. Purdue University is fundraising for plexiglass and lab masks. The clear message is that it’s easier for colleges to purchase plexiglass than redesign pedagogy.
The race to get back to campus in some form, even for a few weeks, is largely about one thing: money. If this fall is entirely online, polls have shown, families don’t think they should have to pay the on-campus price. The traditional business model for higher education is built on the in-person experience. Without it, vast pieces of institutional budgets will collapse and quite possibly the very future of all but the most prominent institutions.
You can hardly blame parents and students for balking at tuition prices when the experience in the spring was so disappointing. In place of all the time, effort, and money colleges are spending on trying to resume on-campus instruction this fall — efforts that may be in vain due to factors outside colleges’ control — they should instead be focused on improving last semester’s remote experience. They should invest in better online-learning platforms, expand instructional-design support for professors to overhaul their courses, and offer widespread training in online teaching.