College Classes: What We Have Learnt
What is the way forward in the spring? What have we learnt after a pandemic fall semester?
In the fall, most colleges walked a tightrope between going fully online, risking enrollment losses and starting classes in person, risking virus spread. They invited students back on campus and offered online and hybrid courses. How did that go?
Below is a summary of anecdotal experiences that are unlikely to be surprising, yet revealing about a way forward for spring.
Online Classes. Like most tenure-track faculty, I teach online this fall. Even as I explore creative ways to know my students and give them reasons to attend classes and learn, I know fewer students this semester. Fewer students are attending. Availability of lectures recorded for viewing later may be a reason for some. Missing classroom social engagement with their teacher and peers in person likely has dissuaded others. At the same time, for a vast majority, synchronous online classrooms using features such as breakout groups provide a sufficient social and learning environment to engage.
Hybrid classes. Largely, teaching faculty and instructors offer hybrid courses — courses with a blend of online and in-person lectures and a blend of online and in-person students. These teachers are responsible for developing lectures to engage both in-person and online audiences, and for handling virus logistics in their classrooms. An instructor who teaches hybrid sections of the same course I teach tells me that a single student out of forty attends an occasional lecture! Almost all his students are online, always. But he has to be there in person in every class. Hybrid lab classes appear to be no different.
The conundrum. Students show a preference for hybrid classes, yet so few are there in person in a typical class of forty. Why? Because even as they long for normalcy, sitting with a few masked students, dispersed in large classrooms, neither facilitates learning nor meaningful social engagement.
Selective in-person offerings for students with special needs or for some atypical classes are useful. For most others, in this pandemic, the way forward is not expending resources on unused in-person classroom experiences and forcing students to attend. Instead, colleges and parents should learn what the students already know. Campus life is not just about in-person classes. It is about living and learning with peers, away from the distractions of home. They have told us: On campus, online classes are fine. Thank you!