By Shira Lander
As a professor at SMU Dallas, I am saddened by mainstream media’s myopic view of pandemic-induced online education.
Whether it be op-eds about students receiving inferior educations in virtual classrooms or stories about parents suing colleges for “not getting their money’s worth,” public discourse lacks an alternative perspective.
My own experience is quite the opposite. I witnessed an increase in student engagement and performance in my admittedly small classes afforded by a private university for my students who were unburdened by medical or socio-economic stress. My experience is not isolated but is echoed anecdotally by numerous colleagues in various parts of the nation. Deprived of non-academic distractions, many of my students became virtually monastic (pun intended). With more attention focused on their schoolwork, their work was more thoughtful, introspective, and contemplative. Deep thinking became the norm rather than the exception.
Consider the iconic Zoom class, which became the symbol of education in the age of coronavirus. The awkwardness of me fumbling with the technology elicited forbearance and support from students who never used to speak up.
In an online class of fewer than 25 students, all of them have front row seats; there is no escaping to the back of the room for anonymity. With college students, it turns out, a healthy measure of surveillance actually works.
I used the Socratic method more efficiently and effectively because I didn’t have to repeat questions lobbed at students caught off guard or slither between disarranged desks in order to make eye contact with a shy one.
My students were less inhibited by electronic images of their classmates presented in an orderly series of boxes than by their corporeal presence. Oral presentations were more fluid and forthright. Breakout rooms engendered fuller participation and more respectful honesty because collaborative learning on a digital platform seemed to eliminate some of the obstacles that usually inhibit student cooperation.
On Zoom we were all just a collection of talking heads, unencumbered by the usual social dynamics that constrain us.
Education is a complex enterprise that is not reducible to student-teacher interaction. This is precisely what many lawsuits are seeking compensation for: loss of student activities, dorm life, and campus resources — both material and other. Yet these elements of the American college experience are not unmitigatedly beneficial and can also impede learning.
For me, pivoting to online education has prompted me to scrutinize unexamined assumptions about how I teach and forced me to develop new methods with efficacy in mind. Although it is too soon to fully realize the long-term effects this chapter in American education will have on higher education, it is certainly too soon to deem it an absolute failure.
Shira L. Lander is director of Jewish Studies at SMU Dallas.