“Online or In-Class? What do you prefer?”
This question continues to dominate the world of higher education right now.
And the answer? Well, what do you think?
The surveys I have seen over the last couple of weeks appear to send a clear message. In-class teaching is the obvious winner. The vast majority of the students have issues with online classes. And most teachers take a similarly skeptical view.
Student respondents mentioned that they get distracted more easily. And I recognize this. When an online session lacks energy or excitement, it is much easier to start doing other more interesting or productive things.
Students also miss the “interaction” with the teacher and other students. They find it more difficult to ask questions and have a meaningful discussion online.
Finally, they think that an “online only” experience cannot justify the high tuition fees that most schools continue to charge for their offerings.
Teachers seem to take a similar view. It’s a challenge to teach “in-class” materials in a virtual setting. In a “low attention span world,” it becomes more difficult to maintain the students’ interest and focus.
The response of administrators to these messages is to push for a return to the comfortable world of in class teaching.
The conclusion? The key stakeholders in education don’t want a “new” or “next” normal. Going back to the “old” normal is the preferred strategy.
But, wait a minute … who are we kidding?
We spend hours online playing games, watching videos, consuming other content, and interacting with family, friends, and colleagues.
And let’s be honest, more and more students disliked the classroom and begged for a recorded option. Early starts. Uncomfortable chairs. Stuffy atmosphere.
Most people are captivated by the virtual spaces of a digital age. If online classes are not keeping students engaged, can we really blame the platform?
Moving classes online has simply exposed the teachers’ failure to adapt to a new platform and find other ways to catch and keep the students’ attention outside the safe and controlled classroom environment.
We should stop blaming online platforms for these educational problems. Shrinking attention spans, limited interaction, and a broken business model are a consequence of a lack of imagination from most educators and not a consequence of the shift to online platforms.
Of course, I also struggled with my first online classes. I was convinced that nothing could beat the classroom experience. Performing in front of a live group of students was a great way to transfer knowledge, excitement, and energy.
How could I teach without the familiar “comforts” of the classroom? How could I be energetic and inspiring while sitting at my desk at home in front of my computer and camera?
What worked for me was experimentation.
I changed my materials, stories, examples, and assignments, and adapted them to the virtual environment. It hasn’t been an easy journey. I made mistakes, learned some hard lessons, and developed new teaching strategies.
I have found that talking to a camera is a skill. I am still learning but have found new ways to convey the same energy boost online as I did in the classroom.
And the results are mind-blowing.
If things went back to normal now, I wouldn’t leave the online environment and go back to the classroom. The virtual world offers so many more opportunities (and with the exponential growth of technology such opportunities will only increase).
And, here I don’t only talk about flexibility and inclusivity. Students can watch the content and interact with me wherever they are and whenever they want. Somewhat surprisingly, teaching has become more personalized.
But, the biggest surprise of teaching in an online environment is that it releases the students’ creative capacities. It gives them a platform to express themselves.
My online classes are so much more interactive than my traditional lectures. A younger generation of students find it easier to interact and discuss in online settings.
I recently spoke at a “digital transformation” event where a younger participant shared a story that when she had to make decisions with her roommates, they used WhatsApp, even though they were all in the house at the time. They were more comfortable negotiating and making an agreement through “chat” than face-to-face interaction. I don’t say this a good thing — or that I fully understand — but this is the reality of how people now communicate and interact.
Students have also become more creative in dealing with their assignments, approaching me, and sending messages. Last week, they even sent “video CVs” when applying for student assistant positions. These were so much more powerful than the standard letters and CVs that I was used to receiving.
Educators need to get up to speed on these huge cultural shifts and adapt the content and style of their courses.
So, what’s next?
We shouldn’t waste the huge opportunities of online classes. We must start to think about new business models for higher education.
In short, we are witnessing a transformation from place to people.
In the past, the key to education was where it took place — the institution and the classroom. In the new world, place is less important than people — both educators and students — and the unique qualities they bring to the educational experience.
The comfortable monopoly that educational institutions have enjoyed over teaching and learning seems likely to be challenged by disruptive new forces. It has happened in every other sector of the economy, so why not education? The complacent belief that old world educational institutions are somehow immune from disruption seems lazy and irresponsible.
A new business model of online teaching could make higher education more accessible, interactive, and affordable. We could offer students a menu of courses. The full menu will lead to a degree, but there will be a separate price for each course. Students will purchase content and certifications in those areas that matter to them.
I already proposed to my university to offer my international business and the law program as a standalone online package — with virtual coaching sessions and the in-person meetups. I see this more flexible format as the future.
Old world institutions can survive, they just need to exercise a bit of imagination and creativity.
So instead of continuing to make the wrong choices, let’s have a more open discussion of where we stand right now and make the right choices together.