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Some Colleges Are Going Online This Fall. It's a Complicated Decision.

Will Walkey, HOST: Since the pandemic hit, universities and students have been forced to finish the semester with classes online. That’s sparked conversation about the value and effectiveness of remote learning. Some colleges have said classes will again be online this fall. And as Lauren Peace reports, it’s raising complicated questions about higher education and interactive learning.

LAUREN PEACE, BYLINE: Noelle Nafus is a high school senior and last fall when she was touring colleges, she fell in love with Barnard:

NOELLE NAFUS: I was standing like on this terrace and looking at the New York City buildings all around us. I just felt like I was home and this is where I was meant to be.

PEACE: Nafus was accepted to Barnard, and was looking forward to moving to the city from her hometown in Rochester, New York in the fall.

But instead, she’s one of many incoming college students, who will likely be starting school from her computer, at home.

NAFUS: I was really looking forward to orientation week and being able to meet lots of people and make lots of friends. And I just don’t really think that works online.

PEACE: In the last few days, major academic institutions, like Harvard Medical School and Cal State have announced plans to move all fall classes ONLINE.

Most colleges in New York City still haven’t decided whether or not to bring students back to the classrooms.

Paul Glader is a professor of journalism at The King’s College in lower Manhattan. He says most schools are now having internal discussions about the most effective ways to take their programs online.

PAUL GLADER: How do we establish the bonds, the classroom kind of atmosphere, we want to have, the culture of learning we want to have. I think that's on the mind of professors around the country.

HOPE KENTNOR: What we're doing today in light of COVID, I don't consider that really online learning, I consider that emergency learning.

Hope Kentnor is a professor and consultant who’s spent the last several years researching and coaching course instructors on best practices for remote education. She says when classes went online this spring, colleges were improvising.

Most professors had to make the adjustment within a period of just two weeks….

KENTNOR: When I work with a university or a professor to develop their online course, it's a six month lead time…I find that the reticence towards online learning is mostly due to faculty, administrators, universities, not really understanding what's involved in a quality online course.

PEACE: Schools going online have three months to redevelop the entire curriculum to make it work.

Many schools already offer some form of remote learning, and long-distance learning has been conducted, and studied, for YEARS.

Tom Tobin is a program director of distance teaching and learning at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

He says the first documented example of distance learning goes back as early as the 1700’s--an ad for shorthand lessons in the Boston Gazette.

TOM TOBIN: We started with distance education in the postal mail.

PEACE: Tobin says one of the primary goals of distance learning has always been to make education more accessible. Until fairly recently, a lot of prospective students weren’t able to get to a college campus.

TOBIN: Professors would send out lecture materials, students would read them, They would send them back and that was a way to break down barriers of distance for students who didn't live near University.

PEACE: After print, radio lessons followed…


Then television broadcasts and lessons on VHS tapes…


And then finally the internet. That’s when the distance learning really began to boom.

Through all these iterations in distance learning, success always comes down to what Tobin sees as a few key points:

TOBIN: Do you have opportunities to practice? Is the content engaging and interactive? Do you get to interact with the materials, with your classmates, with your instructor and with the wider world are you making those connections?

PEACE: And, he says, those are still the goals that schools need to meet as they reinvent their classes for the fall.

Kat Di Tommaso is a professor of English and the writing coordinator at Bronx Community College. She says meeting those standards with online learning may just be unrealistic.

DI TOMMASO: Most professors do not want to teach online, they don't think it's as effective. I agree with that. Most of them want to be back in the classroom. I mean, just the type of relationships and interaction and check in that you're able to do with students is entirely different than an online thing. It just is.

PEACE: And Di Tommaso also says not all students can effectively participate in distance learning, since it requires high-speed internet, workspace and a computer at home, which for many students at her college is not the reality.

DI TOMMASO: A lot of students, even if they're taking online classes, they still do the work on campus and the computer labs.

PEACE: Some fields of study are especially challenging to bring online. Adaline Gomez is a third-year theater student at The New School…

She says studying acting means creating work together, working face to face.

ADALINE GOMEZ: I would have normally been doing scenes, working together to create like a 90 minute piece with the other students in the course… And instead I had to create a seven minute piece by myself in my house.

PEACE: The in-person interactions are what drew her to her major… and without them, class can be difficult to get through.

GOMEZ: Our classes are two and a half to three hours long, which doesn't feel very long when you're moving around and you're in a room with A bunch of people doing the thing that you love. But it does feel really long when you're sitting in front of a computer.

PEACE: If classes remain online this fall, Gomez says she’s going to delay her graduation, and resume her studies at The New School when it’s safe to be back on stage…

But colleges don’t have the option of taking a year off. And neither do professors.

Paul Glader, the professor at Kings College, says he’s experimenting now with discussion boards and virtual lectures, to find ways to facilitate student collaborations online.

GLADER: We're kind of being forced into this new world now of online teaching and online learning whether we want to or not. So I’m embracing


PEACE: Glader says he doesn’t have all of the answers yet, but he’s on a task force at King’s College to examine the possibilities and plan for Fall.

Lauren Peace, Columbia Radio News.


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