With 1.5 millions deaths and an impending second wave, COVID-19 is a tragedy. But even tragedies can have benefits. Take World War II, for example. Depending on estimates, about 50 million to 100 million people died as a result of the war. But out of that devastation the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other international organizations were born. While these organizations are impeachable, the concepts of organizing the global economy and paying attention to inclusivity are noble goals.
Like how global institutions came out of World War II, an improvement in education will come out of this terrible pandemic. In the short term, school closing will increase inequalities in education; however, in the long term everyone will be better off.
Some classes can be taught better online. I remember taking introductory macroeconomics and microeconomics courses in which the professors lectured auditoriums of hundreds of students. There was little to no interaction between the professors and the students, who looked like zombies watching the clock rather than the PowerPoint presentation.
But that situation was not the professors’ faults, nor that of the students. The problem was the medium of instruction. When there is little to no interaction between professors and students, lectures are better produced in a partially online format. In those cases, nothing is gained from live instruction, which only invites errors, tediousness, and disengagement. Why force professors to fumble over lectures they have already given hundreds of times only to inevitably make a few mistakes when they could perfect the lecture one time, record it, and enhance it with graphics and editing?
Strategically shifting appropriate lectures online will increase academic opportunity. Having tenured Ph.Ds regurgitating lectures every semester increases the cost of education. If we can reduce the cost of education through partially online education when appropriate, more bright young students from underrepresented backgrounds will be able to get the world class education they deserve.
Not all courses should go online, and online does not mean online only. Higher level courses that require conversation and debate in person are better left offline. There will also likely always be a place for in person office hours with professors and TAs. In person testing centers would be necessary as well.
Still, a mixed approach would benefit learners even in courses that can less obviously be transmuted digitally. Take language learning for example. We did not create Talk! to replace in person classes but rather to augment them. Talk! is a place to use your skills, work on speaking and listening, and learn about culture. Even then, we have gotten feedback from users saying that Talk! is a better experience than regular classes because it is more engaging, fun, and gets you speaking in the target language more than regular classes.
It is a shame that beneficial changes often need to come out of disasters. But if you are looking for the silver lining of this pandemic, pay attention to the shift to online learning as a result of the pandemic. That adoption will make schools more open to experimenting with partially online options. In the end, that innovation will enhance education quality and inclusivity.
If you are interested in online learning and are learning a language, Talk! is an excellent service to try. At Talk! we speak casually, play games, and learn about culture in 60 minute Zoom sessions with native speakers and other language learners. We have free, open sessions during the month of December. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up for one and have fun!