In-person education is the “gold standard”

Kenneth W. Henderson, Chancellor of Northeastern University, posted a letter on the university’s website late last month, informing students and faculty members that the Boston institution had the intends to open as planned for the spring semester, as “in-person learning remains the gold standard.” “

The unqualified statement struck many in education circles as surprisingly lacking in nuance, especially for a chancellor whose institution has a solid catalog. of online courses. Henderson is not the highest administrator in Northeastern, and while in most institutions the Chancellor is the highest person, in a new structure put in place by Northeastern, Henderson is a member of cabinet.

Henderson’s comment comes at a time when many parents and students across the country are calling for a full return to in-person teaching amid the COVID-19 pandemic, pressuring university officials to keep their institutions open, especially at universities such as Northeastern, where the emphasis on in-person and experiential learning is often associated with a high price tag.

Leaders of the online education movement say whatever the motivation, Henderson’s “gold standard” rhetoric and similar comments unfairly marginalize well-designed online courses.

Thomas Cavanagh, vice-president of digital learning at the University of Central Florida, oversees the popular UCF Online platform and disputes claims that in-person learning is superior. UCF Online has a 25-year history and offers over 100 online programs to approximately 6,600 students who cannot attend in person. In addition, 75% of UCF’s 70,000 in-person students also take at least one online course.

Cavanagh sees the increasing use of rhetoric diminishing online education as the result of a “pent-up demand” for normality and the social aspects of in-person education, especially for students who were seeking an in-person experience. and who have been forced into online learning because of the pandemic. But he said the rhetoric is just plain wrong.

“I don’t think it’s fair to paint all e-learning with some sort of broad inferiority brush, because that’s just not the case, as our research confirms, as well as a lot of research. another, “mentioned Cavanagh. He called Henderson’s comments “a little regressive” and said that given the body of evidence for the effectiveness of online learning, he had hoped education officials would move beyond these. radical generalizations.

“I don’t think any particular course is higher or lower just by modality,” Cavanagh said. “Everything is based on the conception and the commitment of the faculty. “

Cavanagh said his colleagues at UCF have studied the effectiveness of online learning since the mid-1990s and found no significant difference in outcomes between asynchronous face-to-face online lessons. and well designed. He said courses that blend online and in-person teaching have proven to outperform both modalities on their own. UCF research shows that online and face-to-face courses have the same dropout rates, at around 4%, he said, and online courses outperform face-to-face courses when it comes to quality. perception of teaching by students.

Like Cavanagh, Russell Poulin, executive director of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technology, and other respected leaders whose organizations include the National Council for Online Education are tired of what they see as lazy stereotypes. They plan to issue an open letter to students in the coming weeks to counter market rhetoric they hear that they say combines quality online education with emergency distance learning on Zoom.

“High quality online learning is the result of specially trained faculty members, intentional instructional design and a host of other important ingredients that we have been refining for over 25 years,” the letter says.

Poulin put it in layman’s terms: “Anyone of us can take a basketball and shoot for a basket. Those who have practiced everyday for years are more likely to hit the free throw. “

As the Omicron wave continues to rise, it’s unclear how soon many universities will resume in-person classes and, if they do, if they will stay open if new variants emerge. In recent weeks, many institutions, including Duke, Georgetown, Stanford, Harvard, Vanderbilt and Northwestern universities, have announced that they will wait until mid-January or later to resume classes. While Harvard said on Monday that in-person instruction would begin Jan. 24, anger among students over paying full tuition fees for distance learning remains an issue, reflecting the greater tensions that most face them. university leaders have been confronted as the pandemic continues. A petition that Harvard students circulated at the start of the first wave of the pandemic said that the switch to the Internet “might not reduce the value of the Harvard College brand, but it dramatically diminishes, if not completely hampers, our ability to make connections ”.

David A. Armstrong, president of St. Thomas University in Florida, said he viewed the reluctance of other institutions to reopen as an opportunity to highlight the connections students can make in St. Thomas, which has been fully open during most of the pandemic. Armstrong said he poached students from more prestigious institutions by pledging to stay open.

St. Thomas was one of only two universities whose athletic programs played all games scheduled for fall 2020, Armstrong said. The institution has run several advertising campaigns highlighting that St. Thomas will remain open and offer the full college experience despite what Omicron brings.

“We just did an ad, again, on another wave because we knew what was going to happen – people were going to start shutting down,” Armstrong said. He compared the in-person experience offered by St. Thomas to the life-changing red pill that reveals the truth depicted in the science fiction film. The matrix. In the film, those who swallow the blue pill live in contented ignorance. He said the ad used the movie analogy, telling viewers, “If you want the blue pill then get stuck in your room and virtual … but if you want the red pill and for the full college experience come on. at St. Thomas University. “

The announcement prompted a significant number of inquiries, Armstrong said, adding that a full college experience is “what students want, and it’s what they pay for.”

Poulin said closed campuses create problems beyond missed sporting events. The rhetoric amalgamating distance education and online education confuses it because it fails to make it clear that often instructors with no background in online education are thrown into distance courses without training. Often times, these emergency distance learning courses are plagued by technical glitches and are synchronous, a recipe for disengagement and poor results.

Steve Mintz, historian at the University of Texas and Inside higher education blogger, said that in his experience, a highly interactive, immersive and participatory online education may be superior to the in-person version of the same class.

“Some courses may actually be better if taught in a fully online or hybrid format,” Mintz said in an email. “My survey of US history with 1,500 students was actually more interactive than its in-person counterpart. We had breakout sessions, ongoing discussions, and breakout meetings, which didn’t happen in the in-person version.

Van Davis, head of service design and strategy for Every Learner Everywhere, which advocates for equitable outcomes in U.S. higher education through advances in digital learning, said examples like Mintz’s are the reverse of what motivates the rhetoric of the “gold standard”. He said that while many academics confuse emergency distance online education with purposefully designed online education, many also confuse face-to-face education with highly interactive education. Often, he said, face-to-face education is not very interactive.

“The gold standard is not the modality,” Davis said, calling Henderson’s use of the term problematic. “The gold standard has to do with the level of interaction that students can have with each other, and that students can have with content, and that students can have with instructors.”

But Davis said many 18-year-olds don’t want a fully online education, which means college leaders are motivated to sell the merits of in-person education without as much nuance as they can. should.

“The rhetoric that is used has a lot to do with the target audience for that rhetoric,” Davis said.

Henderson was not available for an interview, but Constance Yowell, Senior Vice Chancellor for Educational Innovation at Northeastern, maintained her benchmark comment and said he was referring to the whole experience offered by Northeastern, not just to the classroom experience.

“We are a university that takes a broad approach to experiential learning, and we believe in-person learning is a golden standard,” said Yowell. “That’s why [students] come to Northeastern, and we promise them.

Yowell said it was “a misnomer to reduce this to an online versus in-person debate,” but she also pointed out the obvious benefits she thinks in-person education offers students.

“What we do know is that learning takes experience that takes practice; it takes being in the real world, making mistakes, coming back and learning from those mistakes with the experts, ”Yowell said. “I have never seen an example where this can happen 100% virtually. “


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