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Monday, March 27, 2023

When Schools Reopen, Don't Ditch Online Learning

In my recent advising conversations over Zoom, 12 first-year undergraduates scattered across several states shared their challenges with remote learning: feelings of isolation, flickering attention, and engagement fatigue.

Usually, these meetings happen in the formality of my Nassau Hall office at the top of a 200-year-old stone staircase. The change of frame was illuminating. As I caught glimpses of their home lives—a cameo portrait on the dining room wall, a sibling entering the screen to say hello, and many headboards—they discussed their classes and lamented the loss of their social lives. Some flinched at the possibility of remote learning in the fall. Still, several noted the benefits of prerecorded lectures and the ability to fully devote their attention to academic work. One mentioned the pleasure of long bike rides in the country; another, being able to observe Ramadan with his family. Most were focused on reaching the end of the semester while grappling with physical dislocation, economic uncertainty, and human suffering.


The immense desire of my students to get back to normal is understandable. What if we could get back to better than normal? Despite its profound limitations, the sudden shift to remote learning has made it possible for millions of students to salvage their semester. A decade ago, that would have been impossible. It has also exposed thousands of people to new technologies and different ways of learning. Which insights and virtual tools will we decide to carry forward when we are able to reconvene on campus? How might we engage online approaches to complement—rather than replace—face-to-face education. And how can they be harnessed to advance access and affordability?

A promising approach is hybrid or blended learning, which integrates online components with traditional classroom practices. For example, a course might include one prerecorded lecture, one on-campus discussion, and a short reflection submitted online each week. Institutions and their professors will have to decide if and how to combine these elements. Imagine what could be developed if we had the time and resources to combine these methodologies to serve a variety of learners and institutions.

Hybrid learning advances three elements critical to higher education: flexibility, engagement, and learning.

Flexibility promotes persistence in college, which can lead to higher retention and graduation rates. Allowing students and faculty to engage at their convenience can ease trade-offs between education, work, and family; improve access to desired courses; and reduce scheduling bottlenecks. It can also increase access by drawing in students unable to pursue a degree in a traditional campus setting. Hybrid courses have the infrastructure to pivot to a fully online format in the face of a crisis. The University of Pittsburgh has already suggested it might move to a fully hybrid model this fall to mitigate uncertainty about resuming and maintaining normal operations.

Blended learning promotes the vital classroom connections that students and professors value, while also providing new modes of engagement. The effectiveness of online components is bolstered by the human connections developed in person; similarly, classroom conversations are strengthened by alternative forums for discussion and reflection. Digital tools can create a sense of community by relaxing the formalities of a traditional classroom and reducing hierarchy. The teacher no longer stands at the front of a classroom, instead joining a more egalitarian virtual gallery where every face occupies the same number of pixels. Online interactions can also help less outgoing students and others on the margins of classroom conversations to flourish. Some of the concerns about how online education amplifies inequality and poorly delivers experiential content can be mitigated through some classroom instruction as well as study hall, student clubs, and athletics, which are essential to many student experiences. Prioritizing safety is pressing us to consider new forms and combinations, but it could ultimately strengthen our pedagogy.

Research suggests positive learning outcomes associated with hybrid education. Several studies, including a 2018 analysis funded by the Gates Foundation, found that outcomes– including exam scores and course grades–for blended learning equaled or surpassed those for both fully online or traditional settings. While existing scholarship draws primarily from research at community colleges and public institutions, future inquiry is necessary to assess the value of this model for a range of instructors and learners, especially those at minority-serving institutions and residential campuses.

Hybrid learning may not lower institutional costs since it requires both classroom and digital infrastructure. Since advancing parity in access to appropriate hardware and consistent broadband will be essential to ensure equity and support scalability, hybrid courses may not be priced below in-person offerings. Nevertheless, they may prove the more sustainable model, and their advantages could help students save money if they increase graduation rates, thereby boosting earning potential.

The economic impact of the pandemic will likely accelerate adoption of online-only strategies. Many colleges will embrace more virtual learning to balance their budgets and reach students whose resources will also be more constrained. Some will embrace significant integrations. Others, especially residential colleges, will revert to in-person instruction with modest digital enhancements.

The college classroom has changed little since the steps leading to my office were built. Through this crisis, it could change quite radically. While many worry that the impact will be negative, there is something useful to gain from this moment. If higher education can approach hybrid learning as an opportunity to creatively combine the best of face-to-face and virtual teaching strategies, it can expand the toolbox educators are able to draw upon. Instead of seeing online education as a threat or an inferior version of what happens in the classroom, we can make it a powerful companion to the face-to-face engagement that so many of us cherish. This will benefit all of our students, especially those whose fragile situations have been rendered even more visible by this pandemic. Until recently, online education was optional; in the future it will be fundamental.

WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.

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