Opinion: Students still prefer personal instruction
With the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of subsiding, it may not be realistic for universities to reopen this fall in any but the most guarded way, if at all. However, once the pandemic does subside, college students will be eager to get back on campus.
How things do change. Ten years ago, trendspotters pronounced the death of the brick-and-mortar campus. Online classes were the future, they said. We now have nearly two decades of experience delivering online instruction. Here are a few of the biggest lessons.
First, students who can take their classes face to face prefer to do so. A December 2019 EDUCAUSE poll found that 70% of students prefer their classes face to face. Students reported a great deal of anxiety about this spring’s online migration, and some had difficulty completing their semesters in this format. So-called “traditional” college students, who attend college shortly after high school, are particularly adamant in their preference for on-campus instruction. They may be digital natives, but they still crave in-person interaction with their peers and professors. Even some older “nontraditional” students prefer their courses on campus. Some students may add one online class per semester to their schedules for flexibility, but they are still clamoring for a return to campus after the pandemic subsides.
Second, MOOCs found their niches — and they will not be replacing face-to-face classes. A decade ago, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) were the fad. These large online courses are often taught by professors at big-name universities such as Yale. They are accessible through for-profit online portals like Coursera. Generally, viewers may take the courses for free unless they want a certificate of completion, in which case they take exams and pay tuition. Observers thought these would replace traditional instruction. Instead, MOOCs found two narrower niches: those simply curious to learn new things without earning a degree and those seeking profession-specific credentials in a flexible, online format. Some MOOCs deserve a second look, such as a very popular Science of Well Being course taught by Yale professor Laurie Santos, plus several new classes for those seeking to become more scientifically literate in the age of COVID. However, MOOCs are not generally a threat to the traditional college curriculum.
Third, most students seeking online degree programs choose state or nonprofit private universities within a 50-mile radius of their homes. While for-profit, all-online programs have found their niche, most students seek their online degrees from a traditional university that also offers on-campus programs. Online, professionally oriented master’s degrees and professional certificates are particularly popular. State universities often offer better instruction and lower costs than our for-profit competition, and many of these classes are taught or at least supervised by the same full-time, on-campus faculty who also teach face-to-face classes.
Online college has matured and found its proper role in the curriculum, and that role is not to displace most on-campus instruction. Expect students to demand that their campuses reopen once this pandemic subsides.
— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.