There is an air of concern for the mass rush to online learning since the outbreak of COVID-19. Recently, an online learning platform provided by EBS froze as an overwhelming number of students simultaneously accessed the website. Likewise, UIC faculty members and students are experiencing similar unexpected difficulties. Nevertheless, in the hands of rapidly progressive and adaptive technological development, these challenges will soon settle. As the necessity for physical distancing prolongs, the college community will adjust to virtual education, and related concerns for privacy or lack of infrastructure will subside- for instance, after several cases of ‘Zoombombing’, Zoom has already enhanced its security features.
The much bigger concern is the cognitive impacts of digitized classrooms. In fact, our minds function differently when we study using digital devices, opposed to the traditional method of writing with pen and paper.
Our concentration drifts very easily, and we begin to fidget a few minutes into the lecture. In addition, now that students are not provided with hard copy course readers and have lost access to the university printings services, many of them resort to reading class materials on their laptops or iPads. Inevitably, our minds are disrupted by the constant pop-up ads of the Web and notifications from social media applications. It is now very difficult to be fully immersed in lengthy readings and lectures.
For challenging UIC seminar classes in which students heavily rely on office hours and study halls, students find an expedient to surf the internet than to go through the cumbersome task of drafting an inscrutably lengthy email explaining their areas of concern or arranging a video call schedule with the professor. Certainly, search engine algorithms not only give us perfectly fitting information for our research, but a whole archive of relevant information in a split second. The problem is that our tendency here is to skim through a countless number of articles and bounce from one website to another which debilitates our capacity to absorb information from text and form our own thoughts. Overwhelmed by the huge database handed to us, we take snippets of paragraphs and sentences. Unfortunately, this behavioral pattern discourages us from making our own cognitive connections and associations. Students may be surprised how creative they can be with limited information, in which they are forced to come up with their own inferences and make sense of a complicated text instead of conveniently bouncing off to an easier article on the web which prevents a comprehensive understanding of a topic. In other words, educating oneself online is socially efficient on the one hand, where it is intellectually enfeebling on the other.
The academic benefits of face to face interaction are clear. To begin with, an offline conservation with a professor is more inspiring and elucidating in the sense that it gives you a sense of direction and sets the boundaries of discussion for an assigned paper. On the other hand, it is very difficult for students to accomplish this when they are bombarded with information on the internet.
Perhaps seeking academic guidance from faculty is not entirely impossible through email or video calls. Nonetheless, it is not only very difficult for professors to arrange a personal call with all of the students, but in fact, the majority of UIC classes are done through recorded lectures instead of Zoom. According to UIC students, they feel reluctant and uncomfortable asking questions during class even if lectures are streamed live. Communicating through email is also an option, but it is hardly the case that you can receive an immediate response- before then, students will continue to struggle.
Hence, students seem reluctant to take online lectures despite the widespread use of digital devices. Recently, UIC has decided not to count Spring 2020 semester as the Leave of Absence Term in response to the community feedback regarding online courses. Going through this crisis has been transforming many aspects of our lives, and an educational institution like UIC with a large base of international students should accordingly innovate their ways as well to help students pursue their full academic potential.
The Harvard Business Review introduces an attractive alternative – a hybrid model of education that can enhance the quality and affordability of college education. Basic parts of the curriculum or “lectures that require little personalization or human interaction can be recorded as multi-media presentations, to be watched by students at their own pace and place. Such commoditized parts of the curriculum can be easily delivered by a non-university instructor on Coursera”. This allows colleges to devote more resources for field-based teaching, research projects, faculty office hours, career counseling, and social networking that require offline engagements.
COVID-19 has surprised us with a first-hand experience of future education. While the world applauds the transformative impact of online classes on the global education industry, it is largely unaware of the insidious harms of a fully digitized classroom. The value of face to face discussion, hard copy readings, and traditional means of education form the basis of our advanced cognitive abilities. In time, is it best for students to continue learning from home, or have we found a potential alternative?