In the midst of a global pandemic, it goes without saying that this is not the semester anyone was hoping for. With last month’s announcement that West Chester University will continue remote learning into the spring 2021 semester, we need to reflect critically on our experiences from this semester and last in order to figure out where to go from here. I have spoken with several of my fellow West Chester students and done my own research to discover where we are falling short and how we can grow from it. I have found that while we cannot change the pandemic and the limitations it has presented us with, there are certainly ways in which the university can adapt to these challenges and become better for it.
First and foremost, many students are concerned about tuition costs. With the exception of the “COVID-19 relief credit” (around $500 for in-state students and $2,500 for out-of-state students), tuition costs have stayed more or less the same between the 2019–20 and 2020–21 academic years. With the pandemic leaving millions of Americans unemployed, West Chester’s decision to keep tuition the same has serious consequences for students and their families. Many Americans are struggling to make ends meet, and West Chester students are no exception. Though I heard a number of concerns about tuition costs (for example, the decision to charge students for on-campus facilities that the majority of them cannot use), the predominant issue here is the quality of education they are receiving online.
When asked if tuition should be lowered, many students told me that they believe they are not getting their money’s worth for the education they’re receiving. First-year English major Emma Hogan believes that tuition should be reduced next semester because “remote online instruction is not as effective of a learning environment because students cannot directly interact with teachers and classmates.” Many students I spoke with expressed frustrations with online learning, from overwhelming workloads to professors not holding classes as frequently as promised. Of course, the obvious solution in several students’ minds is to reduce overall tuition costs. However, I doubt that this is a viable option for the university. Instead, what I propose is that West Chester invests in solutions to make a remote education worth paying for.
For many West Chester students, classes this semester are not going as well as anticipated. For instance, fourth-year early grades preparation major Jacqueline Napier tells me that while some of her classes are going smoothly, “others are not effective and feel like a waste of time.” In addition, fourth-year English and special education major Madison Starinieri explains that “It’s extremely difficult to constantly stare at a computer screen and then be expected to remain on said computer longer to complete coursework. It’s very unhealthy mentally and physically.” The simplest, easiest, slap-on-a-Band-Aid solution to these issues is to bring back the alternative grading policy from the Spring 2020 semester. No, I don’t mean the policy that is being implemented this semester, in which failed classes do not impact a student’s GPA. I mean giving students the option whether or not to report final grades on their transcript and have them count toward their GPA. Many of my interviewees vouched for this, and I agree that, at the bare minimum, the university should revive this grading system. However, I can understand the viewpoint that this is unsustainable for three or more semesters of remote learning. Furthermore, I do not think that essentially calling an entire academic year a wash benefits anyone. Therefore, I call for the university to redefine what it means to learn online.
Right now, the majority of classes at West Chester are being taught as if they are in-person classes, just in an online format. Sean Gallagher and Jason Palmer of the Harvard Business Review believe that this system is outdated and ineffective. As they explain, “Online learning became the default in 2020, but the approach most colleges are employing is simple ‘remote learning’ via live Zoom classes, a method little evolved from video conferencing in the late-1990s.” This system isn’t working for students, as a 2017 study from Brookings shows. In this, Eric Bettinger and Susanna Loeb found that the “vast majority of online courses mirror face-to-face classrooms with professors rather [than] using technology to better differentiate instruction across students,” often to the detriment of the students. They report that “taking an online course reduces student grades by 0.44 points on the traditional four-point grading scale.” In other words, a student who received a B- in person would have received a C in the same course taken online. Furthermore, they found that “taking a course online reduces a student’s GPA the following term by 0.15 points; and, if we look only at the next term GPA in courses in the same subject area or courses for which the course in question is a pre-requisite, we find larger drops of 0.42 points and 0.32 points respectively, providing evidence that students learned less in the online setting.” Here, we see very plainly that students just aren’t absorbing the necessary information in online classes.
However, as Gallagher and Palmer point out, there are alternatives to the traditional methods of teaching: “In the multi-billion dollar market for fully online courses and degrees, a variety of powerful new platforms and technologies have emerged, grounded in cloud computing, enormous datasets and artificial intelligence.” These innovations have the potential to revolutionize online learning, both during the pandemic and beyond. As Bettinger and Loeb explain, “Online courses offer the promise of access regardless of where students live or what time they can participate, potentially redefining educational opportunities for those least well-served in traditional classrooms. Moreover, online platforms offer the promise, through artificial intelligence or providing optimal course pacing and content to fit each student’s current weaknesses, but also diagnos[ing] why students make the specific errors. These systems then adjust instructional material to meet students’ needs.”
Simply modifying already-existing lesson plans to work online is not enough to ensure student success. Instead, we need to redesign our courses to adapt to online learning. In reflecting on the Spring 2020 semester, Inside Higher Ed’s Elizabeth Johnson observes that “we learned this spring that the basic transition of face-to-face courses into remote delivery did not provide the comprehensive learning experience students require.” However, she notes that “when online education is offered correctly, the connection between professor and student is emphasized; the goal of online instruction is personalized, virtual engagement with each student.” She recommends that universities implement new technologies and strategies to reach students virtually and that they support their faculty as they transition into this new era of learning.
Here at West Chester, the implications are obvious. D2L discussion boards and Zoom lectures simply aren’t cutting it anymore. The university needs to invest in new technologies that redefine our ideas about how receiving an education should work. Furthermore, they need to support our faculty in this transition period and provide training on how to integrate these new strategies and programs into their courses. More broadly, West Chester cannot be complacent during this unprecedented time. We cannot simply bide our time until the pandemic fades away and we can return to campus once more. Our students can’t wait that long. We need to become innovators in higher education and reimagine what online learning can look like. This will benefit not only our current students and staff, but the future of West Chester University as a whole. The university’s mission statement reads that Golden Rams will “collaborate with others to solve problems and address societal needs.” We have a problem. We have a need. We must lead the way through and out of this difficult time so that we come out of it stronger than ever.
Shannon Montgomery is a fourth-year English major with minors in Creative Writing and Women’s & Gender Studies. SM916394@wcupa.edu