Policy Point-Counterpoint: Can Colleges and Universities Maintain High Quality Connections with Students through Virtual Platforms?

AuthorAtkins, Laura C.
PositionArticle 5

For centuries, educational institutions have integrated technological advances into their traditional teaching methods to circumvent geographic constraints for learners and to enhance academic and co-curricular experiences. Correspondence education emerged during the Industrial Era, and became firmly rooted in many Canadian, American, and European universities. (1) The postal system facilitated this early form of distance education as the method of information exchange between teachers and students. With the advent of digital technologies in the early twentieth century, college courses could be delivered through radio and television. (2) These educational delivery tools further supported education beyond geographic boundaries, however using these tools involved tremendous amounts of preparation work for instructors and required their dedication to maintaining communication with students. In the 1980s, educators began to integrate computer-based technologies into classrooms. Combined with the widespread introduction of the Internet to college campuses in the late 1990s, (3) this enabled email to bring faster forms of asynchronous communication bridging spatial divides between teacher and student. Technologies have allowed for the expansion of educational experiences, yet have primarily understood as tools to augment face-to-face classroom practices.

A shift towards online education emerged in the late 1980s, with Phoenix University introducing the first fully online program offering bachelor's and master's degrees in 1989. (4) Online program offerings have expanded; University of Phoenix now supports 134 majors and American Public University offers more than 200 degree and certificate programs, in addition to no-cost textbooks and e-books for eligible students. (5) Even with a shift in modality, focus on educational standards has extended to online programs; Jones International University became the first accredited web-based university in 1996. (6)

While the field of online education has grown, colleges and universities now utilize a variety of program models. Alongside the fully online institutions already noted, universities with physical campuses support individual online program offerings, such as the Harvard Extension School. The fully online programs enable students in any location to access the entirety of the coursework. Institutions of higher education are also adopting blended learning models in which students take some coursework through distance education and complete other components on site. This model allows for flexibility while maintaining some in person educational elements. Finally, many institutions still embrace the more traditional face-to-face program model. In 2018, approximately one third of U.S. students, undergraduate and graduate combined, reported taking all of their coursework exclusively through online format. While this percentage is notable, nearly 60 percent of the college and university student population completed no coursework through distance education. (7)

Within institutions that use some form of distance education, there are a variety of modalities for individual courses; including hybrid, online synchronous, and online asynchronous. In classes using online asynchronous, coursework is conducted remotely and, although there are deadlines, there are no expectations for real-time interaction. In the online synchronous format, students have the location flexibility within time constraints maintained through real-time interaction requirements; this may include live course lectures or discussions. With the hybrid format, students again participate in some form of online course activities while also completing a portion of the coursework within the face-to-face classroom setting; balancing flexibility of time and location with in person classroom connection. Furthermore, higher education is also embracing social networking sites, such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, for marketing and amplification of the curricular and co-curricular student experience. (8)

For many of the approximately 60 percent, or 1.8 million, postsecondary students, who did not have prior distance education experience, the unanticipated pivot to remote learning in spring of 2020 was a challenging alteration to their usual educational activities. Students shifting away from their familiar classrooms, delivery methods, sources of campus support, and in-person interaction with professors, compounded existing challenges at some institutions including student retention, completion and financial stability. Covid-19's power to alter academic institutions has refocused attention across higher education; compelling inquiry into deeper questions not just about technologies, but also regarding pedagogies and engagement with students. Educators are finding renewed need to build and maintain connections between educators and students; as with the critical pedagogies of Paulo Freire and Parker Palmer, who advocate for building communion with students, and Pedro Noguera et al., who refocus attention on the power of connections within education. (9) In a historical moment, when administrators, faculty, and students must be prepared to adapt to online course modalities and social networking sites, in full or in part, can colleges and universities maintain high quality connections with students through virtual platforms?

Point: Online Platforms Provide a Subpar Quality of Connection Compared to In-Person Instruction

The urgency of the current pandemic-related educational shift clashes with the technological reality of the average student body. In fact, the prevailing role of technology in everyday activities induces the assumption that we are all unanimously...

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