With 2022 commencement in the books and colleges and universities now turning to the upcoming school year, administrators and students alike should discount a recent New York Times piece that argued that if higher education is to thrive, “everyone involved—students, faculties, administrators and the public at large—must insist on in-person classes and high expectations for fall 2022 and beyond.”
High expectations, sure. But the view that our nation’s colleges and universities must return to in-person classes exclusively is shortsighted and fails to recognize the real gains and benefits that come with virtual learning. As a professor at a liberal arts college that focuses considerable time on students, I can say resuming a complete “in person model” is a mistake. While many classes and collegiate experiences should absolutely remain in person, a hybrid model should be embraced as students and schools would be well-served by the many and often unspoken benefits that remote learning has to offer.
The many problems of virtual learning for K-12 education have been well-documented, and it’s indisputable that young children need in-person instruction. But higher education is a different story, and the socio-developmental needs of students are quite different. Despite the widespread belief that collegiate life today involves the stereo-typical experience of students living in campus dormitories and apartments, going to libraries and cafés, and participating in various cultural and athletic activities, significant numbers of students simply commute to take a class or two and do not live in the so-called 24/7 living-learning environments of many schools. Moreover, those who live on campus are often subjected to over-crowded lecture halls with hundreds of students, and impersonal experiences are often the norm. As such, virtual education was already making real inroads well before the pandemic; one professor at Harvard even posted a comment that his course was “a better educational experience to watch … online than attend them in person.” Certainly many of those students who are fortunate enough to have a traditional four-year experience with residential collegiate environments benefit from the myriad social activities, clubs, sports, and resources that colleges and universities have outside the classrooms themselves, along with smaller classes and seminars. But the facts remain: So much can be learned virtually, does not require in-person instruction, and classes were moving that way already.
No one can argue that the COVID-19 global pandemic has not significantly impacted higher education. But even before the pandemic shut down most in-person learning in spring 2020, higher education was already in trouble. Tuition and other costs were rising, and administrative bloat was interfering with campus life both in and outside the classroom. Adjuncts were doing an increasing share of the teaching, and college burnout, social media addiction, and mental health concerns were greatly impacting students. Students were struggling well before the pandemic, and remote learning cannot be the scapegoat for broader failures in higher education.
When COVID-19 suddenly hit, classes and virtual engagement were far from top-notch. But over time, schools, students, and teachers gradually adapted to and improved upon virtual learning. And thanks to data from College Pulse, we now know that classroom discussions actually improved in a number of cases. College Pulse surveyed more than 37,000 college and university students in the spring of 2021 and the data reveal that few students felt that remote learning negatively affected their ability to speak up in class. Only 17 percent of students reported that sharing their views in class was much more difficult online than in person. Meanwhile, almost six in 10 (57 percent) students stated that online class was just as an easy or an even easier space in which to share their views.
Differences between school types were non-existent: Students at liberal arts colleges—known for their small seminars and focus on classroom discussion—reported similar numbers to large research universities. Only 18 percent of liberal arts students and 16 percent of students at large research universities said that going online made classroom discussion much more difficult, with majorities of students at both stating that virtual class discussion was either easier or about the same as in-person discussion.
A word about socioeconomic status is also warranted. Throughout the pandemic, headlines regularly decried inequalities and learning outcomes among students with fewer financial resources. But among students who self-identified as part of the working class, just 8 percent reported that online learning made engagement in classes harder. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority (70 percent) of working-class students stated that engagement was the same or easier in the virtual classroom—notably higher than the national average.
In fact, it was students in the upper-middle class—those who theoretically had the means by which to access a quiet space with reliable internet—who actually reported having a harder time in the remote setting. Sixteen percent of upper-middle-class students said that moving online made classroom discussion more challenging. Still, a majority (61 percent) felt that virtual discussion was about the same or even easier than in-person discussion. So, despite the real difficulties that working-class students face, students with lower socioeconomic status were in fact more engaged in virtual classrooms. The negative impact of online education on discussion in virtual classrooms has been greatly overstated; if anything, going virtual may even give college and university students a more level platform from which to engage in their coursework and virtual classrooms have made it easier for some students to speak and question freely—arguably a silver lining.
Also worth noting: The majority of students give high marks to virtual learning. In the fall of 2021, when many students were still taking virtual classes, College Pulse asked more than 2,500 students at 136 colleges and universities to grade their college experience. When asked how well one’s spring 2021 courses met their respective educational needs, three-quarters (75 percent) of undergraduates graded their courses with either As or Bs. Seventy-three percent of students felt that faculty engagement deserved an A or B, and 76 percent gave A or B marks to the flexibility faculty gave them in terms of adapting to their needs.
In the spring of 2022, well after colleges and universities reopened for in-person instruction, College Pulse interviewed more than 2,300 students and found that three-quarters (75 percent) of students said they would like the option to take some of their courses in a fully online format. These data are nowhere near as bad as the New York Times piece suggests, and show a clear demand for virtual learning options among students.
In short, in-person education is certainly valuable. And of course, particular courses such as chemistry, music, and photography, must be done in person as so much learning there is done with hands-on instruction and direct interaction. But as the nation moves beyond the pandemic, it would be foolish to simply ignore online education and its virtues and real benefits to students. Students clearly want some online education, and colleges and universities should be responsive to this demand.
What is critical to remember is that as COVID-19 becomes endemic and students grapple with the lockdowns and socio-political madness over the past few years, students have not lost the desire to learn whatsoever. Many of my students and countless students nationwide were triggered and deeply motivated to learn during the lockdowns. These Gen Z students witnessed and were frustrated by the world around them, which included living through chaotic government dysfunction, questions about the environment and sustainability, and issues of economic and corporal safety and equity. Collegiate students want to learn more, recognize the power of education and mobility in terms of having a voice and political agency.
Students now are looking for multiple pathways to learn and engage; having virtual options for some courses can help students manage work with other responsibilities, save on commute times and transportation costs, and could allow students to take courses outside of usual hours. From a teaching perspective, having some courses go virtual means that schools can draw on talent from around the nation without asking instructors to relocate and many schools can offer a broader set of courses. My own institution has very small departments, and students would benefit greatly from having an expert virtually teach a course about Russia and geopolitics—something that we currently do not have available to our students. Schools could now fairly easily partner with peers and other varied institutions to expand offerings and opportunities to learn and experience other ideas outside the physical boundaries of their leafy campuses and as opposed to looking inward with virtual learning. This is a challenge and an opportunity boards, faculty, and administrators should seize; the is question whether or not they are forward thinking enough to do so.
Thus, schools should welcome and students demand a hybrid model of higher education. The higher education world has changed because of the pandemic and students are not going to ignore the possibility of some form of virtual education. Students do not dislike virtual education as much as many schools would like the average American to think, and this mode of teaching should be harnessed to provide unique and expanded learning opportunities alongside traditional in-person learning.
Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.