Landline phones. Compact discs. Wall calendars. Traffic reports on the radio. Foldable maps. In-person college lectures.
Let’s face it: the in-person college lecture is an institution whose time has passed. Ever since I started teaching in 2000, something has irked me about its inefficiency, but I couldn’t quite voice what it was. Then CoVID happened, and we were all thrown, ready or not, into the online education jungle, armed with only a Zoom account, a webcam, and a desperate hope that good teaching was good teaching, regardless of the venue, a hope we wielded as a rapier. That hope turned out to be right, by and large, and so I’ve finally found words to proclaim quite confidently what I’ve suspected for years: the old higher education model is dead. Let’s embrace the new.
Smaller colleges have for years touted as one of their distinct advantages that small classes are better than large lecture halls filled with sleepy students squinting to see the front of the room. Are they? Won’t you find distracted students in both settings? Won’t you encounter students and professors who, if you could read their thoughts, you’d pity for their unrequited longing to be somewhere else at that very moment, whether for the discomfort of the seats, the stuffiness of the room, the compounded lack of sleep, the sickening smell of moist paper coming from somewhere – somewhere! – or whatever other unpleasantness might be obstructing what we like to idealize as the free flow of knowledge at that moment? It is such an unnatural arrangement, this gathering of people on a published schedule to learn on demand. It is not unlike requiring that people all eat or drink or sleep on a set schedule, regardless of whether they be hungry, thirsty, or tired. Yet, lectures large and small enjoin their audiences to sit and sip synchronously from the font at the front of the room. Inefficiency indeed.
But surely the classroom discussions are worth the hour-long episodes of captivity. The exchange of ideas that occurs within those hallowed walls, the verbal thrusts and parries that animate young minds to spring from perspective to perspective in search of provocative nuances and subtleties like gazelles bounding across a meadow: certainly that is worth countenancing the discomforts and inefficiencies of classroom discussion. That is the value-add, after all, and that certainly cannot occur in a large lecture hall.
Except that it can occur online. In fact, it does occur online. And sometimes to a far more insightful, inclusive and productive extent.
I am teaching face-to-face this coming Fall because that is what most universities have concluded students want, need, and demand, even in the midst of a pandemic. But the clamor of this model’s glaring inefficiencies rings louder and louder for me. In truth, I can teach my courses just as well online. I can respond to students synchronously or asynchronously, in the moment or at any time of day. I can provide one-on-one guidance over chat or through a video conference. I can facilitate the exchange of ideas and viewpoints whether they are typed on a keyboard or voiced through a microphone, accompanied or not by an avatar or a live video image a just a blank, black screen with my name on it. I can share what excites me about computer science and programming and have that moment of vulnerability punished by the same indifference I see in a live classroom or, on the good days, rewarded with the same joy of discovery I sometimes witness there. Good teaching is good teaching, regardless of the venue, no matter the modality. Technology has blurred the needless line between the virtual classroom and the cinderblock one. Today, there is no gap.
So why have on-campus lectures during a pandemic? Silly question. Clearly, for the college experience!
To be fair, that excuse should qualify as the justification, and a completely legitimate one. But what does the “college experience” have to do with in-person lecture? When you think of your own college experience, does your mind immediately take you back to a specific classroom or lecture hall? I was a studious, hard-working student, but Room 151 of Everitt Laboratory at 1406 West Green Street is not the first image that pops into my head when I think of college. Instead, I think of singing karaoke with a guitar strapped around me before karaoke was a thing with fellow inhabitants of the second floor of Townsend Hall, playing racquetball with my sister or friends at IMPE, watching really bad football from the top row of the east balcony of Memorial Stadium, watching movies at the Co-Ed Cinema in Campustown, attending the annual Celebration of Bad Taste, hearing preachers on the quad telling all who would listen they were going to go to Hell, working on and presenting projects at Engineering Open House, attending Quad Day, waiting for the bus to take me back home for a weekend visit, sipping hot almond milk and coffee at Espresso Royale Caffe, pulling all-nighters to finish papers and lab reports, going for early morning bike rides across campus and through town, getting sunburned because I fell asleep on the quad, watching in curiosity as people argued for legalizing marijuana on Hash Wednesday, suffering through a misguided campus catering decision to serve less-than-fresh lobster one night in the cafeteria and then seeing said lobsters floating in the nearby toilets, preparing for and nervously participating in on-campus interviews for my first job, going to the local record store to get the latest releases by my favorite bands on Tuesdays at midnight, working up an appetite driving through East Central Illinois and stopping at Denny’s at 2am to get nachos, and checking out Smashing Pumpkins when no one knew of them at a Campustown dive. I have a really hard time remembering any particular class session. All of these other memories are clearer to me than yesterday. And all of these experiences played a much bigger role in shaping me and how I would eventually live my adult years than any lecture I ever attended.
And none of these could I possibly have lived online.
The Herculean efforts we’ve pursued to ensure a safe return to the classroom this Fall are laudable for their sincerity and earnestness, but they seek to restore the aspect of college that is least deserving of being preserved. College should be to life what the minor leagues are to baseball: a training ground, a taste of the big leagues to prepare you for the overpowering fastball of the real thing. Technology has the lecture part of college covered. What technology will never provide is the true college experience and the indelible memories it provides. That is what higher education institutions of all shapes and sizes should be seeking to amplify and enhance. If anything can justify a hundred thousand dollars of high-interest debt, it is the allure and reality of living the best years of your life when all the doors before you are open, a devoted staff of enthusiastic experts are propping those doors open and beckoning you to them, and you share your door-seeking journey with tens or hundreds or thousands of people at the very same stage of their lives experiencing that same rush of energy and newness and possibility that you are. You’re not going to get that on Zoom, nor would you even want to try. It is a lived experience. It is the college experience.
Colleges need to focus on honing the experience that is supposed to be theirs, because conflating “classroom learning” – whether six feet apart or not – with “the college experience” is folly. Leave the more mundane aspects of higher ed to technology. Instead, colleges need to invest in enhancing the experience they provide. Colleges need to embrace their role as society’s minor leagues, communities’ training grounds. They need to become places where the arts flourish, where you can check out virtual and live music theatrical events, and attend art exhibits and receptions. They need to become places where activism of all kinds is encouraged and informed by discussion and debate and – yes – online lecture. They need to offer hands-on laboratory experiences in the sciences, because we still can’t do those well with today’s tools, not to say that gap will never be bridged. They need to offer group project space equipped with the tools and supplies tomorrow’s workers and creators and problem solvers need to build the next big things. Colleges need to reach out to the communities that surround them to demonstrate to their young tuition-paying citizens how to engage with and serve others in different walks of life and circumstances. They need to provide students opportunities to recreate and relax, entertain and be entertained, and to forge memories from these experiences that will shape their entire lives. Perhaps most importantly, students of the hopefully not too far distant college must be given active roles and responsibilities in running their minor-league community in ways that enrich and enhance both their collective and individual experiences. If we do it right, students will pay to become part of what would then be a true learning community, one that cannot be replicated in ones and zeros.
We say we are returning to face-to-face instruction in the Fall in the midst of a pandemic for the sake of the college experience, but we’re not. This is a wake-up call. It is time to rediscover and revivify the college experience. Otherwise, why not just go online?