On May 12, the 23-campus California State University system was the first major American post-secondary institution to admit the inevitable: Fall 2020 is going online. Even as more U.S. states ease restrictions, many experts predict another more catastrophic wave in the fall. Sure, colleges and universities can claim whatever they want, in the hopes of stanching an enrollment hemorrhage, but come on: Why intentionally summon tens of thousands of young people with questionable hygiene, poor judgment, and a pathological need to congregate from everywhere in the entire world into one campus if there is a safer alternative?
Of course, it’s not that simple. Moving college online is safe, but suboptimal. When spring 2020 courses hastily retreated to cyberspace, this emergency measure was met with a resounding chorus of affronted yowls from student and professor alike. Instructors who had never held a class online (many of whom vehemently oppose the practice) suddenly found themselves Zooming lectures to glazed-over, anxious students with their “home-schooled” children wreaking havoc in the background. Some institutions went pass/fail. Others didn’t. Nobody knew what they were doing, everyone had to do it anyway, and it was, and continues to be, not great.
Meanwhile, the inevitable digitization of the American university has disastrous consequences for everyone who attends or works at one. It is an unavoidable fact that some postsecondary institutions will not survive the pandemic. Some have already closed, citing COVID-19 as their cause of death. Moreover, innumerable schools have already begun layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts and other desperate measures, so even the colleges still standing in the After Times may be withered husks of their former selves.
If you planned to start college in the fall of 2020, deferring might seem like a nifty idea right now. If you’re a current student and virtual spring 2020 was a nightmare, it might seem like a good idea to take a year off. But really, what the hell else are you going to do with your time, Junior? Travel? Party? Watch Friends with your parents?
While it’s appropriate to mourn the campus experience lost, it’s also time to think about online college along a different binary: Not online vs. in-person, but a good use of your pandemic time vs. a bad use of it. The traditional college experience as we know it is currently floating untouched in the same metaphorical cryogenic freezer as the other artifacts of the Before Times: dinner parties, Tinder dates, and, I don’t know, not crying yourself to sleep every night. In its place is a different experience that many are, understandably, calling diminished, but is still better than the alternatives. You’re stuck at home anyway. Why not check off your requirements?
The good news is that fall 2020 doesn’t have to be like spring 2020. Students and institutions have time to prepare. Even those of us ostensibly slated to teach in person (as I am, we shall see) must build twin online versions of our classes, ready to go immediately for when we, or any of our students, get sick.
Recently, Texas Tech law professor Cassie Christopher asked the quarantined collegians of Twitter what they’d like their professors and institutions to know “if” online college continues into the fall. And while the overwhelming response included contradictory gripes—More asynchronous teaching (where the lectures are recorded and we watch then whenever)! More synchronous teaching (where class is “regular” but on the Zoom)!—there did emerge some common sources of frustration that instructors, institutions, and students have the power to fix for fall term.
I have, for example, heard the odd horror story of professors seeking to replicate the in-person model by being the same extreme hard-asses about grading and attendance they are in the flesh. This is not helpful. Anyone not offering flexible due dates is being a jerk for no good reason, and the same goes for multiple options for assignments (three short papers or one long one! Four smaller exams or one cumulative one!). Grades, on the other hand, are trickier. The ideal and most humane thing to do would be to give all students a pass/fail option, but that often requires bureaucratic permission (ugh), so the next best thing is just to offer students as many flexible paths to success as possible. This includes recording and captioning or transcribing all Zoom lectures, and, ideally, making all live sessions optional, more akin to office hours during class time.
Furthermore, my extremely scientific study has proved that everyone, everywhere hates mandatory discussion boards (all right, many students do). I can see why instructors use them—I have used them—but there is no way that a glorified Reddit thread can replicate the human interaction of small seminars or discussion sections, and it’s time to stop trying. (Luckily, there’s a solution: Make the boards extra credit, which for the uninitiated is a magic spell that, when uttered, causes students to do a thing with great enthusiasm.)
It is also abjectly necessary to make financial changes on the institutional level. Students and their parents are already suing for refunds for spring 2020, and as the American health and economic situations worsen, so, too, will the litigious appetites for restitution ignite. Yes, every institution is facing financial catastrophe, and a government that views academia with open scorn will be hesitant to bail it out (unless it’s the Betsy DeVos Institute of Jesus and Ayn Rand Studies).
And yet, there is no other solution: The fee structure for the online-only version of “regular” college must be different. Although it actually costs more to deliver courses online than in-person (the instructor’s meager salary plus tech), nontuition fees, such as those for student activities, facility use, and (obviously) housing, simply must be eliminated. Of course, the online experience still might not be worth the fancy price tag, and in that case, do I have a secret for you: An expensive “name-brand” school gives transfer students exactly the same diploma as it gives those who start as freshmen. Newly minted high school grads should consider matriculating at their local or regional state school for a year or two, where prices are low and online education has been a part of the curriculum for years. (Students currently enrolled somewhere expensive can research how much transfer credit, and from where, their expensive institution accepts!)
Finally, even if institutions don’t adapt and professors remain recalcitrant, students can help themselves not be miserable for another semester (at least) of online college. The reason that online learning is such an abysmal substitute for in-person class is that it’s not a substitute for in-person class. The idea that a regular classroom can just be made “virtual” but otherwise remain unchanged is ridiculous; online learning is not just a “virtual classroom”; it’s a completely different milieu that requires a different set of expectations.
Essentially, online courses are set up differently because online brains learn differently—or, more accurately, because being online may make our brains different. A 2019 paper in the peer-reviewed journal World Psychiatry that studied the effect of internet exposure on the human brain argued that “the Internet can produce both acute and sustained alterations in” the ways people pay attention, retain information, and interact socially—you know, things necessary to do college. Specifically: The “online brain” is so different that not only has it permanently introduced some new behaviors (such as absently checking a device), being online may have changed the way our brains work, to the detriment of the attention span, memory, and emotional stability. As with all very recent scientific scholarship, this paper is but one study about “internet brain,” and not infallible—but, as many students found out the hard way during spring 2020, taking a course online did often result in being too impatient to absorb anything, forgetting a tremendous amount of content—and then getting really mad about it.
But, more good news: If students enter their online courses with a fortified mindset—essentially a sort of Defense Against the Dark Web Arts consisting of mindfulness (I notice my attention slipping), discipline (I will not treat this assignment like a BuzzFeed quiz), self-compassion (I’m not going to be my best self here and that is FINE), and patience (my professor is just as anxious and stressed as I am)—combined with the reminder that online school still beats the real alternatives, fall 2020 might even inch toward the tolerable.
Yes, it is disheartening to know that, just like with everything else, there is no end in sight for COVID-related disruptions to college life. Yes, there is nothing that truly compares to in-person college, and I am just as eager as the rest of you to get back into the actual classroom. But, like the virus, online higher education isn’t going anywhere. So we might as well give it the old college try.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.