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How forcing colleges to go online could change higher education for the better

A silver lining in a troubling time.

Efi Chalikopoulou for Vox

The Covid-19 pandemic has plunged American higher education into crisis as more and more colleges move to remote learning strategies to prevent the spread of the virus. But hidden within this crisis is an opportunity.

Right now, students are experiencing higher education virtually and many are finding it “inferior” to in-person education. Their perception is likely right. Campus life is about doing things — attending an academic lecture or collaborating with peers on projects or attending office hours — but it’s also more than that. Students take classes that facilitate self-exploration, and they connect with friends in unscheduled conversations. The human connection opens their minds to new ideas and possibilities.

Meanwhile, faculty across the US are facing the frustrating reality of delivering a virtual academic experience, which is harder and takes more time. For example, creating recorded lectures is more arduous than traditional forms of instruction.

In practice, it takes more than an hour to deliver an hour-long video lecture — and that’s once you have all the equipment and software you need and feel comfortable using it. And beyond the technical aspects, recordings are just harder. I recently recorded the audiobook version of my new book, and while the runtime is about eight hours, it took about two-and-a-half workdays to record. When you talk live, you can skip over mistakes or correct them on the fly. But in a recording, you want to get it right and re-track yourself with clear, precise, articulate statements. It’s harder than it sounds.

Academic Twitter is suddenly dominated by expressions of frustration with the process and people sharing tips about how to get it done more smoothly. But even with the best setup, it’s just inherently time-consuming.

These frustrations are very real. Combined with financial pressure on universities and student dissatisfaction with what they’re getting, the sense of the crisis is legitimate.

But, in part precisely because the work is so laborious, it contains the opportunity to accomplish something useful. The idea that digital technology could be used to improve higher education has been a major point of debate for at least a decade — and it’s barely gone anywhere. The pandemic is painful on many levels, but in this case, it’s forcing a huge portion of faculty members in the US to make the large upfront costs of mastering the technology to create something that will have enduring value for years to come.

The pandemic, says Kevin Carey, the director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, is hastening what he thinks is the long-term trend: “the integration of technology into the planning, design, and implementation of college in a way that’s so taken for granted and ingrained that the distinction between in-person and online really starts to collapse altogether.”

Recorded lectures with digital distribution have big benefits

You don’t need to doubt the value of in-person instruction to see that the digital distribution of recorded lectures has some real value.

Unlike a live lecture, a recorded one has a shelf life. It might take two-and-a-half hours to record one hour’s worth of lecture, but once it’s done, a professor could use that hour for four or five years straight. For the 2020-21 academic year, professors are scrambling to make these teaching materials as they also prepare for remote discussion sessions and office hours. But by the next school year, when students are hopefully back on campus, the lectures will still exist and can be used at zero time cost to the faculty. While those digital lectures might not be as good as live lectures, professors will not have to spend time creating them and can devote their freed-up time to discussions, office hours, and other forms of high-value engagement.

Digital lectures also have logistical benefits from the student’s standpoint. With asynchronous delivery, you never miss out on a class simply because it happens at the same time as another class. Seven years ago, then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, making the case for investing in classroom technology, argued that with “streaming video, students — particularly those who are geographically isolated or who are taking advanced courses with limited enrollment — can connect with experts who might be thousands of miles away and can use nearly limitless instructional resources.”

That proved difficult in practice not just because America has been too slow to deliver high-quality internet service to rural and low-income communities, but because the content wasn’t there to use.

Even in more conventional academic settings, if you’re working on a paper and want to refer back to something you remember the professor saying, you don’t need to rely exclusively on your notes — you can actually watch the digital recording again.

Digital lectures have a lot of the same good qualities as books. They take a long time to create, but when done well they have enduring value. Over time, like books, they can generate significant scale effects.

Lectures will be the new textbooks

There are hundreds if not thousands of introductory microeconomics courses taught all across the United States in any given academic year. But while almost all of them use a textbook, they don’t use hundreds of microeconomics textbooks. Instead, the vast majority of the courses cluster around a relatively small number of popular textbooks, each of which is the result of much more time and effort than any one school would be capable of mounting.

That’s in part a simple question of efficiency. But it’s also the democratizing nature of something easily scalable, like text.

Ben Miller, the vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, notes that “good online teaching takes extensive time to develop” and cautions that in most cases that’s not really what’s happening this semester. Faculty members are swamped with work, dealing with inconsistent guidance from administrators, and essentially muddling through. But they’re also running many simultaneous experiments in developing online coursework, and even if a small number of them prove to be good, they could scale up in powerful ways.

The basic exclusionary logic of the current higher education system is that even in a state with a well-regarded public university system, only a small (and typically relatively privileged) subset of any year’s graduating high school seniors are deemed worthy of admission to the flagship campus. While not everyone will be invited to study at Austin, Madison, or Ann Arbor and learn from the professors there, everyone has access to more or less the same textbooks.

And for popular, widely taught courses, video lectures from star professors could become similar. Back in June, Cornell economist Robert Frank asked us to imagine not the video lectures of today but those of tomorrow where you might get “an online course delivered by one of the world’s most knowledgeable and charismatic instructors, supported by Pixar-class animators, award-winning documentary filmmakers and a team of in-person graduate teaching assistants.”

The most selective schools could still offer unique advantages in terms of their in-person discussion seminars, providing students access to the best peer groups and other factors. And in the near future, it should be possible, through licensing or other schemes, for everyone to benefit from the best lecturers in the world.

Faculty, meanwhile, could have more time for their research or for real teaching and mentoring activities rather than duplicative lecturing.

The pandemic is, realistically, a top-to-bottom disaster for education at all levels with technology serving as a none-too-adequate Band-Aid for a dire public health situation. But just as the exigencies of World War II created technologies (radar, jet planes, rockets, synthetic rubber) that transformed civilian life once the disaster had abated, the awkward shifts forced by the pandemic could have some long-term payoff for the arduous work done this semester — creating the circumstances for more flexible and more broadly accessible higher education in years to come.

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