Opinion

Opinion | Seeing Higher Education With New Eyes

Editor’s note: This week’s Future View discusses how universities should change, given the experience of the pandemic. Next week we’ll ask, “Has higher education been dumbed down in the switch to remote learning? If so, how?” Students should click here to submit opinions of fewer than 250 words before Dec. 15. The best responses will be published that night.

If Zoom University has taught us anything, it is that academic instruction constitutes only one part of education. Rather than change drastically to support long-term distance learning, universities should focus on cultivating strong communities on campus.

For education to really take root, campus culture must extend ideas beyond the classroom. When students debate economic theories in the dining hall, the Electoral College in their dorm room, or Hamlet’s motives in office hours, academic concepts come alive. No longer memorized and spit back out for a grade, the ideas become internalized through debate and reflection.

These conversations must be naturally occurring and voluntary. They arise informally when friends and classmates are together, not over text message or an organized video call. Technology in education can help, but overreliance on it has now become a hindrance. The aftermath of the pandemic presents an opportunity for colleges not to reinvent education but to recommit to their duty to educate the whole person.

—Virginia Aabram, Hillsdale College, history

Cost Transparency

I can’t begin to tell you how much I miss seeing my classmates each day. The virus has, however, given me a chance to step back and evaluate higher education without the beautiful campus and all the amenities that must justify the high cost of tuition. During the pandemic, we’ve experienced higher education as pure learning, perhaps what it always should have been. When my only taste of university anymore is the 12 hours a week of online lectures, I hold the professors to a higher standard and, oddly enough, pay more attention.

It has also occurred to me that if the education component of higher education isn’t worth the money once the rest is stripped away, maybe it was never worth it. Once the dust settles, I expect universities to re-evaluate their priorities. I am hoping fewer of our tuition dollars will be spent on props that are staged for campus tours and more on resources and professors that improve the learning experience.

—Robert Gerlach, Georgetown University, business administration (M.B.A.)

Standards Are Slipping

Online learning exacerbates the problem of declining standards and effort in higher education. Grade inflation has long been a crisis, but now with remote learning during a pandemic, teachers are even more hesitant than usual to fail a student or award poor grades. They have every excuse not to uphold high academic standards.

As a doctoral candidate taking classes and teaching them, I have experienced the difficulties of the pandemic from both sides of the screen. By now everyone knows it’s nearly impossible to give undivided attention to a Zoom box. In person, one’s mind can wander for a brief period of time, but online it is all too easy to go the whole session without really paying attention.

Students understand that expectations have been relaxed and respond accordingly. Even the most well-intentioned students can be tempted to submit sloppy work. In my role as a teacher, I want to do everything in my power to make the online experience worthwhile. But when students know that 50% attention gets an A, they would have to be saints to give more than that. Universities need to strengthen their academic standards before grade inflation gets out of hand.

—Kevin Hoffman, Yale University, history (Ph.D.)

Med Schools Lead the Way

I’m three semesters into medical school and can count the number of lectures I’ve attended on two hands. This isn’t unusual. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, at least a third of my peers skipped in-person class. Similarly, a 2017 Association of American Medical Colleges questionnaire found that about 24% of U.S. medical students almost never went to lectures.

Medical schools have long been prepared for a pandemic-like situation. Most lectures during the first two years are recorded and can be played back at custom speeds. Assessments are administered online. Many schools use a pass-fail grading system. During the pandemic, medical schools have taken additional steps including adjusting absence and sick-leave policies and removing lower-value activities such as group worksheets.

After the pandemic, constraints like physical distance or work schedule should no longer prevent students from enrolling in a university. Recorded or online lectures and assessments can allow students to attend school from anywhere, reducing disparities for those with long or expensive commutes. Pass-fail grading can encourage long-term learning rather than reward short-term regurgitation. These and the amended absence and sick-leave policies can also help students balance their educational needs with other responsibilities, like parenting. To solve our nation’s higher-education maladies, we should look to medical schools. America’s doctors may have a prescription.

—Mathew Alexander, Virginia Commonwealth University, medicine (M.D.)

Click here to submit a response to next week’s Future View.

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