I didn’t actually expect to enjoy the online-only version of my computer science class. Certainly, it came with some technical difficulties, but given the number of people who showed up and the fact we could all hear the prof and ask questions, it all worked out pretty well.
The technology for holding online classes has existed for many years now. Anyone can go on Twitch and easily live stream themselves playing a video game, including a view of both them, the game, and a chat window where they can interact with viewers.
One of the reasons we attend class instead of doing our own research on a subject is to get credit towards a degree, but it’s also to have access to a highly experienced instructor who can guide you and answer questions. In the case of my computer science class, the only thing that I feel we’ve lost since moving online is being able to wave the instructor over to look at our code.
I really wish that I had this option a long time ago, back when I was getting my first degree. I lived in Richmond, which means that when I was taking journalism classes, I had to sit on two buses for an hour and a half to get to KPU Surrey, then another hour and a half to get back. Some semesters, that meant I spent 12 hours per week sitting on a bus. For me, this was a great opportunity to listen to podcasts, but useless for anything else. For others, it could just be 12 hours of wasted time that could have been spent on studying or, more likely, working.
The benefits of allowing students to take classes either online or in person are endless. Again, the purpose of a university is to provide education and credits, and continuing to offer classes online would remove barriers for some students with disabilities, as well as parents without access to childcare. People who might need to travel suddenly could also benefit from being able to learn remotely.
Of course, going to class still has it’s clear benefits as well. For example, if I had taken all of my journalism classes online, the chances of me getting involved with the school newspaper would likely be zero. At university, people make friends they keep for decades after they’ve finished their degrees, and for many, becoming part of an on-campus community is half of the allure of going to school at all.
Still, questions remain about how to adapt each and every class to the web. Fine arts of various types are likely incompatible with live streamed classes. Many STEM courses also have a lab component which cannot be replicated at home.
For all of these reasons, I think the way to go post-pandemic is to offer parallel classes. Go back to normal in-person classes, but point a mic and a camera at the professor and let them have access to a chat room for those who can’t show up. Privacy issues can be addressed by keeping the camera close to the instructor, or forgoing that and live streaming slides, making sure all sessions are end-to-end encrypted.
It will make education more accessible even after social distancing becomes unnecessary.