Coronavirus and the Great Online-Learning ExperimentRoundup
tags: education, coronavirus
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, which will be published in the fall by Johns Hopkins University Press.
In 1993, as Louisiana State University made its first steps toward online instruction, its student newspaper, The Daily Reveille, issued a stark warning about the future. "A university is a place where the knowledge of one generation is passed on to the next, and this cannot be done by machine," the paper declared. "Information can be found in a computer, but only by the human touch is the knowledge of generations transmitted."
Was the paper right? Nearly 30 years later, we still don’t know. But this year’s biggest news story provides us with an opportunity to find out, if we’re wise enough to seize it.
I’m talking about the coronavirus crisis, of course, which has led dozens of institutions in recent weeks to cancel in-person classes and replace them with online instruction. An important question is whether the move to online learning is good or bad for students, and we will soon have tons of new evidence that we could use to answer it. But do we even want an answer? To me, that’s the biggest question of all.
Since the LSU newspaper issued its warning, online instruction has become a staple of American higher education. By 2016, roughly six million students — or about a third of all students in the United States — were taking at least one online course.
A smaller but growing number took all of their courses online. Almost half of the 1.4 million students at for-profit institutions were enrolled exclusively in online classes. But so were 11 percent of the nearly 15 million students at public colleges and universities.
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