The most cogent argument I have read regarding whether or not to open educational facilities for face-to-face classes this fall is: If those convening to discuss this issue meet virtually to be safe, just two to three weeks before schools are scheduled to open, then the right decision should be obvious. Yet the University of Maine announced (via a virtual news conference) the launch of campus-based fall classes beginning just two days later. It seems a curious paradox that many academic administrators offer assurances that students can safely attend classes, while many coaches are hesitant about outdoor fall sports.
A recent national survey reported that 62 percent of respondents felt that instruction in fall 2020 should not be done face to face. Yet thousands of school districts and higher education institutions are planning or have begun instruction on-site. The consequences of this are already being felt, as COVID-19 infections among staff and students have increased, resulting in quarantine measures, delay of classes or canceling face-to-face instruction and switching to online options.
Absent in most news about schools reopening is planning related to technology-assisted instruction. Although many proactive educators have adopted effective means of teaching remotely to safely begin the academic year, most institutions have spent the summer debating when and how best to open for classroom-based learning. Thus, most schools and colleges are beginning the fall term with the same conventional methods and resources that were in place last spring.
Zoom, a popular but relatively rudimentary videoconferencing platform, became the medium of choice when schools closed abruptly in March. Zoom was a useful tool as a quick fix when teachers had to find a substitute for face-to-face classes to finish the spring term, but it is an inadequate mode of instruction to ensure quality learning at a distance. As a university student opined in The New York Times: “Who wants to pay $25,000 a year for glorified Skype?”
Online instruction is not intended to simply replicate the classroom environment by converting lectures for video transmission. Quality distance education uses expertly designed interactive teaching and learning methods that many now prefer over conventional classroom-based pedagogy. Research confirms that quality online courses are equal, and often superior, to face-to-face courses.
Despite the availability of suitable online alternatives, why does the preference persist for having students gather in enclosed spaces for 30 hours or more each week, considering the risks involved during an ongoing pandemic? Why not a temporary hiatus on how education is traditionally delivered? Certainly, one semester of distance learning for all can be an acceptable alternative, with face-to-face accommodations being made for those needing more conventional forms of learning.
Last spring, I had the opportunity to share advice on how to deal with these formidable challenges. I suggested that what was needed was no less than a Marshall Plan for education in America, including significant monies allocated to equip every school and college with robust online tools, training faculty in their effective use and launching this endeavor immediately following the close of the spring semester. With aggressive planning and preparation over the summer, by fall 2020 we would have had a cadre of skilled online educators and infrastructure in place to support this effort, at least for the fall term and beyond if necessary.
To succeed, this initiative or some version of it, would require the allocation of dedicated COVID-19 relief funds, a functioning Congress and president, a supportive Federal Communications Commission to enable affordable broadband, and enough educational leaders at all levels nationwide to embrace such a plan. Obviously, we have chosen not to commit to such an ambitious approach.
Perhaps more schools and colleges will finally implement appropriate distance education modalities, not as fallback approaches to teaching and learning, but rather as an effective and desirable alternative, or a supplement to classroom-based instruction (e.g.,, hybrid courses currently being proposed). Let us hope we can find our way soon enough so that we can contain the further threat of COVID-19 to our teachers and learners, while maintaining our record of innovative education.