An unwavering commitment to this form of delivery prevented elite schools from using digital media to lower costs for all of their students, or investing in the pedagogical expertise that might have rendered online learning options complementary in practice and commensurate in quality to face-to-face instruction. This is why tens of thousands of students and faculty at some of the wealthiest and most esteemed universities in the world are finishing their coursework in video chat rooms this spring, instead of having the opportunity to take advantage of high quality interactive and pedagogically sound online options. We can only speculate how things might have been different if residential schools had invested as much in online learning platforms as they have in recruiting star researchers, renovating dormitories or upgrading athletics facilities over the last 20 years.
We recognize that residential programs provide a great deal more to students than mere coursework. They are relationship machines, generating countless friendships, intimate partnerships and professional network ties. That machinery doesn’t translate easily to digital life, which is why residential-campus students, when told to complete their coursework on computers, feel cheated out of much of the value associated with residential college attendance.
We also recognize that online formats bring their own risks. When poorly designed and bereft of genuine human attentiveness, online delivery can be disastrous for students who are not well prepared for college-level coursework. Inequitable outcomes will almost surely result if the makeshift approaches being used to weather the current crisis continue indefinitely.
Going forward, educators will need to study and compare learning outcomes for different kinds of students in a variety of instructional formats. With prudent investment, careful observation and a commitment to ongoing improvement in both physical classrooms and online, quality instruction can be provided irrespective of delivery mode.
Well-resourced institutions should use their capital and scientific endowments to create and model best practices: building best-in-class online learning platforms and then adopting and promoting research-based approaches to iterate and improve on instructional design. Here the nation’s esteemed research universities are ideally positioned to serve the entire sector: they have the scale, expertise, and research infrastructure to make signal advances in applied learning science.
Additionally, administrators, faculty and alumni should recognize the costliness of requiring students to leave their homes and physically cohabit with one another for four years. How much of that is really necessary? Might two or three years of being on campus together suffice for four?
This is not a fanciful idea. For example, the University of California system now requires that one junior transfer student be admitted — primarily from the state’s community college system — for every two traditional entering freshmen students. Students admitted this way receive most of the benefits of a University of California education while enjoying substantial savings on tuition, room and board charges during their initial college years.