By Emma Campbell
Long before the coronavirus pandemic ever sent classrooms to virtual platforms like Zoom or Big Blue Button, there were people who swore by the validity and effectiveness of online learning. Those who hold online degrees tout added flexibility, better time management, broader world perspectives, and new technical skills as some of the lesser known benefits of the format.
Even without the pandemic’s influence, the popularity of online learning makes sense. 46% of global organizations use virtual teams, according to a 2019 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management. Familiarizing students with this format may prepare them for an online workforce.
But what happens when online learning is no longer a choice based on personal preference, but a public health necessity?
There are certainly drawbacks to the virtual classroom setting. In a week of online classes at Washington College, I’ve watched classmates drop in and out of Zoom meetings due to loss of internet connection, cringed at gravelly microphone malfunctions, and missed an entire class because the professor suffered a power outage.
We’ve also seen a privileged assumption come with the switch, with many educators failing to take into account that not all students own computers or live in a space conducive to learning.
Liberal arts institutions such as Washington College have been forced to be especially adaptive due to the current impossibility of interpersonal connection — a key ingredient in the recipe for a well-rounded education. Much of liberal arts learning depends on togetherness, on free-flowing, in-person discussion that cannot be replicated on platforms like Zoom.
But by mourning the loss of our cherished in-person classrooms, are we selfishly ignoring the bigger issue?
The novel coronavirus has claimed 181,000 lives in the United States alone, according to the CDC Covid-19 Data Tracker as of Aug. 28. The simple, frustrating truth is that even when it is once again safe to venture outside without masks, things will not — cannot — ever be the same. Crowded lectures, dining halls, formals, and house parties are all elements of the college experience that, after the pandemic, will never be viewed as entirely safe again.
Lee Adler, an expert on education and academic union issues at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told Cornell Chronicle that schools are “dangerous breeding grounds” for coronavirus.
“President Trump and others have wanted to open up the economy and schools since he ordered them closed,” Adler said. “But now that our nation is at a crossroads, it is critical to ask what needs to be done to ensure safety for not only children and their families, but also teachers, school staff and their families. We know that it is only by massive testing — something that has happened nearly nowhere in the US – that we can be relatively sure that it is ok to open the schools.”
By closing campus, WC has certainly made the safest decision given the lack of testing in the country. Should similar precautions be taken once it is safe for students to return to school?
Encouraging students and professors to wear masks in public when they’re sick and to wash their hands more often are practices that should be adopted regardless of Covid concerns. Incorporating more online classes in school curriculums is an easy way to minimize exposure not only to coronavirus, but to future diseases. If schools had taken these preventative measures before the virus spread, the national death rate wouldn’t be as devastating.
The online learning format has seemingly been dubbed by educators everywhere as unideal. This is fitting, because we aren’t living in ideal circumstances. The country isn’t going to bounce back from the unsurmountable losses it’s suffered over the past year, and our education system isn’t adaptable enough to recover on its own. Students may have to buckle up for more unideal methods of teaching. In other words, online learning may be here to stay.