Colleges Should Go Back to School on Remote Learning

Too few seized this fall’s unique opportunity to truly reimagine how they offer virtual education, and student dissatisfaction -- and ultimately budget pain -- are likely to follow, Ryan Craig writes.

September 4, 2020
 
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In the early days of television, West Coast viewers could be forgiven for failing to fall in love with the new medium. In California, Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason appeared on the small screen as smeary, messy and just plain ugly. And while neither became a star for his good looks, the cause was crude technology producing a low-fidelity image.

Decades earlier, radio networks had begun delaying programs for West Coast listeners in order to air during prime time. When the practice carried over to TV, NBC, CBS and ABC had two choices: (1) make TV stars perform a second time for West Coast viewers, or (2) find some way to record and play back three hours later. Radio had mostly adopted the “one more time for the West Coast” solution. But consistently redoing a TV show a second time was expensive, if not impossible. Meanwhile, videotape was in its infancy and couldn’t produce an image that was remotely acceptable.

Television’s answer for the 1950s and most of the 1960s was to point a movie camera at a TV screen. As a show aired on the East Coast, the network filmed a TV screen in L.A. then rushed the film to a nearby lab to be processed in time to play in West Coast prime time. By 1954, TV networks were using more film than all Hollywood movie studios combined in order to broadcast a hazy picture of a picture.

A jerry-rigged technology that didn’t work well for millions of Americans brings to mind the remote learning experiments of the spring. Following the COVID-19 lockdown in March, faculty valiantly continued courses via Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, WebEx or Skype.

But in trying to copy in-person learning with an ill-fitting technology, the result was tantamount to filming a screen. Remote courses continued to be centered around live lectures. Awful reviews suggest this mitigation strategy may have yielded more creative virtual backgrounds and Zoombombs than actual learning, while simultaneously exacerbating inequality, with underrepresented minority and low-income students facing even more roadblocks to engagement and persistence.

This fall, following bait of promised reopening and switch to remote learning, many students are back on Zoom. Predictably, colleges and universities are under assault as never before: from media attention-seeking pundits with sound bites like “a streaming video service that costs $58,000 a year” and -- infinitely more important -- from students demanding discounts or rebates.

At most institutions, the magical thinking and/or flimflam ended too late to get a tuition refund. So hundreds of thousands of students have signed petitions, hundreds have succumbed to ambulance-chasing attorneys and allowed their names to be used in class action lawsuits, and there’s now a tuition payer “Bill of Rights” where Article 1 is “the right to receive the full benefits owed to students through payment of tuition and fees.”

But despite the fact that it’s clearly unsustainable to charge a bundled price when the bundle contains only one item -- remote courses -- and, on average, course delivery only accounts for between 27 and 31 percent of total spending, a mere 11 institutions have cut tuition. Efforts to blame students for campus shutdowns notwithstanding, by winter the expensive 2020-21 bundle will come across like the worst Christmas basket ever: no candy canes, hot chocolate or marshmallows -- only stir sticks.

So the operative question on all but the most macho campuses is no longer Plexiglas installation or social distancing, but rather this: Can the caliber of this year’s remote learning forestall a revolution? Since the spring, practically every institution has increased support for faculty members, making available new technology tools and training for remote learning.

And across the board, the numbers appear impressive, from Yale, which reports that nearly 1,200 faculty sought help from its Center for Teaching and Learning to prepare for the fall, to Alamo Community Colleges in San Antonio, where virtually all 2,200 faculty members received training. As a result, instructors are improving lectures by redoing PowerPoint slides, preparing introductory videos and making course materials more accessible.

But contrast this approach with how universities approached reopening campuses. When it came to plans to reopen, it wasn’t about providing support for faculty. It wasn’t “how can we help you keep your classroom safe? Let us know if you need any help.” Not by a long shot. Rather, it was prescriptive operations manuals and guidelines that ran to hundreds of pages. Most colleges and universities didn’t provide support -- they made changes and provided clear direction.

Imagine if schools had provided similar direction for improving remote learning. For decades, we’ve known that the passive learning engendered by the mainstay of lower-level undergraduate education -- lectures -- can be upended by converting courses to active learning.

There’s consensus on what active learning entails: (1) flip the classroom so one-way curriculum delivery occurs ahead of class, (2) quickly ascertain whether students have understood key concepts, (3) utilize classroom time for group problem solving and project-based learning to improve understanding of key concepts, and (4) track whether learning has occurred. Because at least three of these four items require intensive use of technology, COVID’s forced shift to remote learning was a once-in-a-century opportunity to re-engineer courses to active learning because it would have allowed colleges and universities to overcome the three barriers to active learning:

1. Classroom Resistance

On-campus courses are often difficult to transition to active learning because large auditoriums and lecture halls don’t work for group problem solving or project-based learning. Problem solved by remote learning and the miracle of Zoom breakout rooms.

2. Faculty Resistance

Faculty are often reluctant to do the work required to adapt a course, particularly when they’ve been teaching the same way for years. But a combination of clear direction, mission during a public health emergency and financial incentives could have been enough to get many faculty over the hump.

3. Student Resistance

Students often resist a model that requires them to effectively attend twice: once ahead of time to view the “lecture,” then class for active learning. But could there be a better retort to ankle-biting petition signers than twice as much education as they were getting before?

Similarly, there’s a great deal of agita about the online discussion boards accompanying remote courses, specifically the formulaic, often rote comments that typically result from the requirement to post a minimum number of comments. One tweet that went viral sums up the problem:

*discussion board posts*
Student: I love bread
Me: Joe, I agree with you! I love bread, too. I liked the part when you said you loved bread. Great point!

Rather than providing support, colleges and universities could have provided clear direction, for example requiring adoption of new tools like Packback, an AI-powered discussion board that encourages critical thinking through prompts and assigns a curiosity score to each post. The result, according to Jadrian Wooten, professor of economics at Penn State, is that “responses are real responses -- students actually think before posting.”

Colleges and universities will say they tried to improve remote learning. And they did. But despite a summer of grand pronouncements of antiracism and equality, they didn’t try as hard to help students most at risk from low-fidelity remote learning as they did with the meshugas with the operations manuals and Plexiglas.

***

Back in the 1950s, Lucille Ball was the first to overcome jerry-rigged screen filming by abandoning live shows and producing I Love Lucy ahead of time. This allowed her to distribute film for broadcast, ensuring a clear picture for all viewers. And as affiliates had episodes in the can, the rerun was born.

What Ball accomplished through innovation, colleges and universities have done through inaction. Because for the vast majority, this academic year will be a rerun of spring. It’s not only sad for college students, but also tens of millions of K-12 students. Higher education could have taken advantage of the opportunity created by COVID to demonstrate effective remote learning. But it didn’t, and students are the victims.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Too few higher education leaders are experts in the science of learning or education technology. All are experts in their fields, and many come from hard sciences. But during a pandemic, when universities are forced to go remote, hiring a classicist or molecular biologist to lead a higher education institution may be akin to hiring a reality show star to lead the United States.

Then there’s the related view that faculty know best how to teach their courses. That’s true in many (but still too few) cases in normal times, but hard to argue in a totally different modality. The fact that colleges and universities have not taken a prescriptive approach to this academic year demonstrates how few are truly teaching institutions as opposed to something else (e.g., research, sports, fraternities). More broadly, the prioritization of Plexiglas over remote learning demonstrates a fundamental lack of imagination in higher education. It's almost always about how can we continue to do what we've always done, and almost never about producing better outcomes for students in an innovative or different way.

Like West Coast viewers in the early days of television, students won't be falling in love with colleges and universities this year. Quite the opposite: fidelity will be extremely low. Due to our failure to materially improve remote learning, COVID will be the shot heard round the higher education world: the start of the Great Unbundling revolution.

As the postsecondary James Madison behind the new tuition payer Bill of Rights writes in Article 2, students should have “the right to opt out of paying fees levied for collegiate athletics, recreation and other nonessential services.” So if you thought this year was bad, just wait until unbundling begins. That’s when college and university budgets will begin to look really smeary, messy and just plain ugly.

Bio

Ryan Craig is the author of College Disrupted (2015) and A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College (2018) and managing director at University Ventures.

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