Digital education should only endure if it can replicate campus benefits

The pandemic revealed that in-person teaching generates greater satisfaction and sense of belonging, say Leonard Saxe and Graham Wright

十月 23, 2021
A group of students look at a tablet
Source: iStock

The pandemic forced us to ask fundamental questions about how we live our lives. For those of us who teach in higher education institutions, it required us to think about how we could provide an educational experience without classrooms, lecture halls, or a physical campus community.

Now, although Covid-19 continues to devastate many of our communities, vaccines allow us to look forward to a time when dramatic changes to our lives will no longer be necessary. And we are faced with the question of which elements of online learning should be preserved and how to more effectively use technology to promote learning.

For some college and university administrators, who have struggled over the years to balance health and safety with educational and financial concerns, higher education without a campus can be a seductive option. But as they consider the potential for virtual learning to reduce the cost of higher education, they should also be curious about what benefits students get from being physically present in the same room or on the same campus. What evidence do we have of the value of in-person learning: the return on investments in bricks and mortar?

Prior to the pandemic, this evidence was hard to come by because only certain types of classes, at certain types of schools, tended to be offered online. But, as social science researchers, we treated the pandemic as a natural experiment to allow us to understand the impact of broad-based online education.

During the 2021 academic year, we conducted a set of surveys on representative samples of undergraduates at three private universities in the Northeast of the US. Some of these students had all or most of their classes in person, while others met mostly or exclusively online. Some lived on campus, others attended college while living at home with their parents. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our findings show that there is something uniquely valuable about in-person education.

Undergraduates who had in-person classes at least once a week were far more satisfied with their education than peers who never or rarely attended a physical class. Almost half of students who had an in-person class at least once a week reported being “very satisfied” with the quality of instruction at their school, compared with about one third of those who had in-person classes less frequently. Similarly, 20 percent of students who had in-person classes less than once a week reported that they were bored in class “all the time,” compared with only 13 per cent of students who had an in-person class at least once a week.

Clearly, some classes work better online than others, and some professors have a special talent for teaching virtually. But the higher satisfaction of students who attended even a single in-person class every week points to a profound difference between how students feel about in-person and online classes.

Moreover, even if online teaching ends up being effective, its adoption may still hamper efforts to form a cohesive campus community. In our surveys, students who had more frequent in-person classes were also more likely to feel that they “belonged” at their school. The challenge of preserving that sense of belonging online may be especially pressing with regard to Black and LGBTQ+ students, who, our research shows, are less likely to feel part of their school’s community than their white, non-LGBTQ+ peers, regardless of whether they are learning in person or online.

It seems likely that even when the threat of Covid-19 has passed, the technology we used to survive during the pandemic will continue to be a major force in higher education. Online learning has enormous potential; in some form or another, it is here to stay.

But our study also shows that being physically present together on campus has a unique value. Exactly how much value it has is something that needs further study. So too does the question of how much of that value could be replicated in better designed digital settings; are there better ways to harness technology while preserving the relationship between students and faculty?

That question is particularly important because, in a post-pandemic world fractured by a host of social barriers, it would be unfortunate if the benefits of in-person education become yet another privilege that divides the haves and have nots. If online education continues to be widely employed, that should be because it enhances learning, not because it is less expensive.

Leonard Saxe is director of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Graham Wright is an associate research scientist at the Steinhardt Institute.



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