A Response to ‘Online Learning Is Not the Future’: Don’t Draw Sweeping Conclusions from Spring 2020

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Upon reading Peter C. Herman’s Online Learning Is Not the Future at Inside Higher Ed, what’s striking is not his conclusion, but the reach of his extrapolation from his own students’ difficult experiences during a crisis to generalities on the future of all education.

It may be true that the majority of student prefer face-to-face classes to online. I suspect it is. But the conclusion that Herman draws, based simply on asking his students opinions about online learning from this semester, is that students “universally” “hate” online learning. I’m willing to concede that this may even be true, but I don’t know because it certainly does not follow from his arguments.

My first issue is that it is quite a leap from one professor’s students in one major at one university during one (unprecedented) semester to the future of higher education. And my second issue is with the claim that his students just experienced a typical online course. I take aim at his claim that students and faculty can assess the relative merits of online versus face-to-face education because they have now experienced a course “both ways.” Contrary to Herman, I do not believe that student can “compare the digital and the analog version of their classes” because they “took the course both ways.” I can’t stress this enough: what happened at Spring Break 2020 is not that we all switched to online classes in the middle of the semester. What happened is that we were all forced to move our classes online in a pinch due to a global pandemic crisis that overturned nearly every aspect of our lives. No one had signed up for that, no one had planned for that, no one had prepared for that, and I’m pretty sure no one wanted that. If one believes that this past semester was a good representation of online learning, then one reveals that one doesn’t understand online education.

The author defends his claim that students experienced true online learning in the second half of the spring 2020 semester because, though rushed, many profs did a good job with the transition and put together online classes with “all the bells and whistles.” And maybe some did great, I’m sure many did. But his analysis is based on his own students and their transition to online, and as he honestly reveals, it was maybe not the best.

Herman asked his students, who are mostly English majors, but he goes to great length to assure us they are in every other way diverse, to “write an evaluation of their experiences with online education.” It is unclear if the evaluation was anonymous or not, but he does let us know that he asked the students for permission to quote their responses. We don’t know how many students were asked, but the responses were apparently unanimous: “they hated it.” Next comes a (hopefully cherry-picked) selection of comments: I haven’t learned anything since we went online; it seemed too easy; the quality of learning had gone way down; I wasn’t learning the material; we basically have to teach ourselves. One student said that she felt like she wasn’t getting 10 percent of the regular class. These are not typical evaluations of typical online courses. These are his own students talking about his own courses. For his sake, he would do well to remember that he was tasked with a nearly impossible duty of reworking his entire curriculum and moving to an entirely new delivery mode in a matter of a week. Oh yeah, and the global pandemic crisis thing.

The author admits that with “in-person classes canceled, jobs evaporating and shelter-in-place order, the structure by which many organized their day had disappeared, leaving many students feeling lost and adrift,” and that students are possibly taking care of loved ones and sharing space and technology with family members. This was added almost as if it is irrelevant contextual background. A key point that was reiterated in “every response” is that students missed human interaction. Yes, maintaining the human connection element, and the intermixing and intermingling of ideas and bodies, are both essential to a positive learning environment and are harder in online courses. “All told, moving online caused ‘a profound sense of loss.’” But is it at all possible that the global pandemic, the terrible uncertainty, the quarantine, the loss of social interactions and physical touch, the closings of churches and restaurants and everything else, the upheaval of any approximation of normalcy, and possibly even the sickness and death of loved ones, could contribute to that profound sense of loss? Maybe the conclusion to be drawn is not that “online is not the future” because “it’s just not what students want”, but that this past semester was really hard on everyone.

If I wanted to, I could take my students responses to this semester and draw the exact opposite conclusions. Evaluations I received from students were overwhelmingly positive, with such (cherry-picked) comments as “the online videos were very beneficial to learning the material.” Because I was home with three little kids (oldest is age 5) during the day, I recorded videos at night and posted them for students to watch asynchronously. One student said, “You made very detailed videos that really helped me understand and answered all the questions I had regarding the content.” And “if there was something that wasn’t understood then [the professor] would make sure to explain it over email or make a zoom or video about the topic to make sure everyone understood.” Some students said the move to online was even better for learning (“I feel I did better when we went online because I was able to go back and listen to the lecture in parts where I didn’t understand”) and for meeting with me (“When we were on campus it was sometimes hard to meet with you to ask for help. Since going online you have been very gracious in adapting the course to work online and with our schedules.”) I’m happy these students had a good experience, at least in my class. But of course, these comments are purely anecdotal. They do matter, but I would never think that, from this small sample during a strange transition during unprecedented times, all students want online learning and that online learning is the future.

Online learning will likely be here while we continue to address COVID-19. Whatever happens with fall semester, even that will be temporary. Herman agrees that, given the health risks, online is “how we need to teach until there’s either a cure or a vaccine for COVID-19.” I’m not hearing the calls for as many classes online as possible after the pandemic, as Herman says many teachers fear. And even if there were calls for a radical growth of online education, looking at the second half of the spring 2020 semester as a model is just wrong.

Interestingly, and frankly confusingly, one of the few links in the article is to a piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education, about not drawing conclusions from the current situation, actually titled On Not Drawing Conclusions About Online Teaching Now — or Next Fall. We can all certainly draw lessons from it, and we must, but we would be wise to refrain from drawing sweeping conclusions about the future of education from Spring 2020.

About Author

Jonathan Humston is an assistant professor of chemistry at Mount Mercy University. He has taught science to middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college students in Iowa and around the world. He is interested in the intersections of science, information, education, and society. He lives with his wife and three young kids in Iowa City, Iowa.