Is online learning the future of higher education?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, hundreds of schools — at all levels of education — have announced closures. Schools across the United States are sending their students off campus and hurriedly preparing teachers to run their classes remotely.

Last week the Department of Education said it would allow schools to use online learning techniques without having to go through its regular approval process. More than 100 colleges and universities have already announced they will switch to online classes.

Online learning is already fairly common, especially in higher education. It can involve anything from reading articles to watching live streams of lectures to participating in discussion boards on a website. Many teachers already communicate about assignments or grades via messaging systems, and some employ “blended” learning, which involves both online readings or videos and in-person instruction. It is especially popular among students who have irregular schedules or live in rural areas. However, the sudden switch to all-online learning may lead to difficulties for educators.

Why there’s debate

Advocates of online learning have long argued that it provides students greater control over their education and more flexibility for schedules, benefiting students who work jobs or have children. Some view digital learning as the wave of the future and say there is no better way to prepare students for a workforce that relies heavily on technology. Proponents also say it’s more cost-effective and cuts down on building maintenance costs.

However, critics argue that it’s logistically difficult and inequitable, especially for those who have limited internet access or don’t have access to a laptop to participate in classes. They also say it hurts those who need teachers the most — students who struggle in class and lack the self-motivation required to succeed in remote learning environments. Teachers and students agree holding a class online just isn’t the same as it is in person. It fails to create the community learning and spontaneity that can happen in an in-person classroom, one teacher said, arguing that students lose out on the joy of learning.

What’s next

Most schools say the move to online class is temporary, but it could lead educators to rethink traditional methods of learning even after schools reopen.



It’s accessible

“Online education is an ethical practice, especially for those who find it nearly impossible to attend on campus. Online rescues them, giving them the unprecedented opportunity to earn a degree without the stress of commuting or taking classes at night. … Online has permitted millions of working students to leap over the class divide.” — Robert Ubell, Inside Higher Ed

It improves digital literacy

“Social media has become such a big part of their lives, and who knows what will come next? It is important for kids to learn how to learn online, from online sources.” — Steve McKinnon, Mississauga News

We must train students for the technological revolution

“Before we resign ourselves to contemplation of a general decline in cognitive ability, let’s consider what such results as these don’t tell us: how well young people who are glued to their screens will perform at tasks involving memory and cognition when aided by a digital device.” — Stephen L. Carter, Bloomberg

Saves maintenance costs

“The physical maintenance of schools — facilities that are used just a few hours a day and often not at all during the summer — is also hugely expensive. … Remote learning can ease the budget burden.” — Paul Brandus, MarketWatch


It’s impossible to create a learning community online

“In real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.” — Mark Edmundson, New York Times

Not all coursework can be done remotely

“For seniors doing research and writing theses, or any student in a lab class, moving online is nearly impossible. The same is true for students in dance, music and studio art.” — Ronin Rodkey and Cole Graber-Mitchell, Amherst College students, Washington Post

It’s not profitable

“Online is not as profitable as physical classrooms, competition is tougher and average prices are falling faster.” — Tim Culpan, Bloomberg Opinion

Faculty could get laid off

“I can't help wondering how many faculty members might be laid off if the university decides teaching remotely is good enough, or how many people will be let go when their bosses realize they don't need to show up every day, or even at all.”— Joelle Renstrom, CNN

There are many barriers to online learning

“It may turn out to be a nightmare that shows us how impossible it is: uneven access to bandwidth, enormous infrastructure, crappy learning unless you are experienced and dedicated and know how.” — Cathy Davidson, Author

Online classes can be good or bad, just like in-person classes

“In the same way that we can have good (and not so good) traditional classroom courses, we can also have good (and not so good) online courses. Further, re-conceptualizing and converting a traditional classroom course to an online course doesn’t necessarily make it better or worse.” — Eric Fredericksen, the Conversation

What does this mean for our future social interactions?

“I worry that as online education encroaches on traditional classroom space and time, it reflects pervasive trends wherein we would prefer to see people on their digital devices everywhere and always.” — Christopher Schaberg, Inside Higher Ed

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images