In defense of online learning

While some bemoan the loss of in-person classes, the remote learning forced by COVID-19 offers us an opportunity to expand access, confront opportunity gaps, and prepare for future growth of higher education.
By: | February 28, 2021
Nancy W. Gleason is an Associate Professor of Practice, Political Science, and Director of the Hilary Ballon Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at New York University Abu Dhabi.

Nancy W. Gleason is an Associate Professor of Practice, Political Science, and Director of the Hilary Ballon Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at New York University Abu Dhabi.

The ongoing pandemic means that many students will continue to attend classes online for the foreseeable future. Educational conventionalists will cringe at the thought of yet another digital semester in which young people are robbed of the in-person interactions that are inherent to a traditional college experience.

But while no amount of Zoom classes could ever replace an in-person theater performance or a spontaneous coffee with friends – among the many reasons why campus life will always be an essential part of global higher education – we shouldn’t dismiss the academic benefits of another semester spent partially online, either. Four key reasons stand out.

For starters, e-learning works. While some college administrators still balk at the idea that high-caliber education can be attained outside brick-and-mortar settings, the evidence suggests the opposite. Distance learning empowers educational outcomes, enables more teaching flexibility, opens doors to disadvantaged students, and is, for many college students and faculty, as effective at conveying knowledge as in-person learning. This has been particularly true during the pandemic.

Online teaching tools and technology are also revolutionizing how students learn. At the University of Texas at Austin, for instance, professors have found that “highly interactive, well-designed large online classes can be more effective than the large in-person lecture courses they replace.” And at Carnegie Mellon University, researchers are teaching computers to deliver personalized instruction to students when they are outside of the classroom.

Second, educating future generations will require more online instruction, not less, and now is a good opportunity to fine-tune the method. According to the International Council for Open and Distance Education, by 2030 the number of students enrolled in higher education globally will top 400 million, a 400% increase since 2000. Remote learning will be essential to meet extra demand and ensure equity and quality learning outcomes across a diverse student pool.

Third, another semester of online learning could push schools to further confront opportunity gaps that had been building long before COVID-19. For example, less-resourced students are often unable to afford the technology required of today’s college experience, and instead must rely on borrowing devices to do their work and to work where free Wi-Fi is available. To learn remotely, every student needs a computer and access to a reliable internet connection; well-resourced schools have a duty to inclusion and belonging that involves supplying them.

Such efforts could in turn force innovations in how schools and governments think about connectivity. For instance, recent efforts by telecommunication companies to provide free internet access to students during the pandemic could be made permanent.

Finally, the jobs awaiting today’s undergraduates will require constant skills training, and much of that learning will happen online. We are living in what has been dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where a combination of technologies is changing the way we live and interact, and where work will be increasingly automated. A key feature of this era will be the immediate and constant need for workplace upskilling and reskilling, and in this context, lifelong learning will be enabled through e-learning environments. Students must be prepared for this eventuality.

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When well designed, remote learning can be as academically rigorous as in-person learning. As we found at my university last semester, students performed well in the online setting, and for some, the increased flexibility was even credited with enhancing the learning experience. The decision to teach online also pushed faculty to get creative in course design and, perhaps paradoxically, to deepen their connection to students.

To be sure, expanding online offerings requires planning, and centers for teaching and learning (CTLs) are essential to this process. As hubs of pedagogical innovation within universities, CTLs help instructors develop new teaching approaches and experiment with new formats. During COVID-19, CTLs from Hong Kong to Boston have facilitated the logistical and practical aspects of remote teaching continuity. Before last fall, many professors at NYUAD had never used Zoom for teaching. Today, they all do; the CTL I lead helped get them proficient at engaging with students online for better learning. If buttressed by expert teams of academic technologists and superb librarians – who assist faculty in everything from conducting online research to using the whiteboard feature in Zoom – CTLs are key to facilitating moves to remote instruction.

One of the most common criticisms of remote learning relates to assessment. How do you test someone’s grasp of course material if you can’t monitor their performance in person? CTLs are helping here, too, by providing evidence-based best practices for how to deliver alternative assessments. Research shows that open-book exams and group projects are just as effective at measuring learning outcomes as high stakes, proctored exams, which can be hard to administer remotely. When we look upon students with generosity and focus on the learning, academic integrity generally follows.

CTLs are essential to building strong online programs that can constantly respond to the latest technology and practices. But to do this, CTLs need money, and not every university can afford to fund a center dedicated to pedagogy and teaching excellence. This is where collaboration with other school departments, and other schools, is essential. At the University of Oregon, the college’s CTL partners with private sector technologists to develop web-based tools for literacy and math. Stanford’s CTL, meanwhile, is collaborating with campus partners to create curated guides on designing online courses. And in the United Arab Emirates, NYUAD has joined eight other colleges to leverage know-how, and to develop accredited online degree programs, a gap in educational needs that COVID-19 helped reveal.

Public-private partnerships could also help with funding shortfalls. As I’ve noted before, the automation economy demands that industries collaborate with government and higher education to implement a skills shift in the global labor population. Corporate funding of CTLs and e-learning technologies could help. At Arizona State University, a leader in such solutions, partnerships with companies like Starbucks and Uber are educating company employees and helping ASU “scale access to education locally, nationally, and globally.”

Remote learning does not replace the resources, spontaneity, and sense of community inherent in an on-campus experience; returning to the classroom after COVID-19 should remain a priority. But the future of education demands that we don’t turn our backs on online instruction, either. Rather, we should continue to work to improve it. What educators need to learn is how to facilitate learning both in-person and online. As educators, what a terrible mistake it would be to fail in this, the most important test of our professional lives.

Nancy W. Gleason is an Associate Professor of Practice, Political Science, and Director of the Hilary Ballon Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at New York University Abu Dhabi. She is the editor of Higher Education in the Era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, published by Palgrave Macmillan. @NWGleason