By David Joyner
As colleges make plans for the fall semester, the common chorus is how much of a sense of normalcy we can expect to reclaim in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19.
But as we adjust to the widespread impacts of the pandemic, there is a better question we should be asking: why would we go back to normal? Was what we were doing before the best we could do, or can this moment be the catalyst for something better?
Online education — that is, education mediated by the internet where students need not be in the same place at the same time — can work well. I direct Georgia Tech's online Master of Science in Computer Science program, which enrolled 9,600 students in the spring. All of our evidence indicates that it is possible to create an online learning experience as good as the in-person experience.
There are caveats, of course — you must consider the audience, subject matter, and other factors — but our experience says this is an area worth pursuing. What’s more, this approach may solve issues of cost and access that challenged higher education before COVID-19. Total tuition for our degree is about $7,500, a far cry from the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars often put toward a college education.
We also must realize that life is not going to snap back to normal in the fall. Even as some colleges restore portions of the in-person experience, there will be international students who cannot return to campus, students who miss class due to illness, and immunocompromised students who cannot risk coming to campus. Faculty members will be similarly affected.
Even under the best conditions, we all face the looming threat that an outbreak on campus could force another sudden shift to remote learning.
We can address these issues in two ways. We can draw a firm line between those participating in an in-person experience and those participating online, just like we have for years.
Or we can stop looking at classes as confined to specific locations at all.
Technology can make distance learning feel not all that distant. Remote students in a class that is otherwise taught in person may participate in lessons as their own group. A dedicated teaching assistant could facilitate for the remote group, keeping them very much part of the class. And rather than just one physical and one remote classroom, why not multiple, small physical classrooms attending remotely, alongside a virtual classroom of all remote students?
The goal of this design is to create symmetrical experiences. The cadence and structure of attending class, interacting with classmates, and participating in activities need not change based on one’s attendance remotely or in-person. Online students are no longer a camera silently placed in the back of the room; they are part of a redefined classroom designed to remove reliance on the traditional same-place-same-time structure.
This may go one step further: Perhaps the professor herself is unable to come to campus, and so she teaches through the remote classroom rather than the physical one without missing a beat. If you can easily imagine a distributed classroom where the instructor may shift locations seamlessly, then you have created a symmetrical experience.
This is more than just a stopgap during the COVID-19 pandemic. The structure’s benefits are far too valuable for that.
Once you've broken down the sanctity of the synchronous, collocated classroom, other barriers start to collapse. Dual enrollment, where high school students enroll in college classes, becomes significantly easier: those students become part of an online cohort of students. Adult learners, students with certain disabilities, international students: all encounter major barriers from geography, synchronicity, and cost. Removing physical location as a constraint immediately improves accessibility for those students.
Our online master’s in computer science has demonstrated you can cut tuition through scale without giving up personalized attention. Without location constraints, your audience increases, which can lower per-student cost. That dynamic can then bring in disadvantaged students, underserved populations, and international students for whom tuition can be a more significant obstacle.
From there, it is possible to tackle the last barrier of synchronicity. Research we will present and publish this summer shows what we call a "synchronicity paradox" in online education: Students crave the experience of attending class together, even as asynchronicity is crucial to access in the first place. To resolve this, we may create groups of students and teaching assistants who attend a recorded class at the same time and interact with one another, but are not bound to the single, original class time.
For example, a cohort of students in Shenzhen could attend a machine learning class the way it is taught in Atlanta, complete with the same material that was delivered in person earlier that day, but in their own time zone and with their own classmates and instructional support.
Much of this argument may feel familiar: aren't these distributed courses just MOOCs — massive open online courses? Isn't the argument for lowering cost, distributing access to content, and offering self-paced pathways the same language that MOOC proponents use?
Yes, but a key weakness of MOOCs is the lack of consistent credit: assessments and scope can vary wildly from course to course without significant human assessment and integrity verification. That’s why they never upended higher education the way many expected.
If we tie these courses to existing to credit-bearing classes and degree programs, recognition and respect will follow.
Moreover, participating in a MOOC lacks the same social feel of enrolling in a traditional college course. You join the MOOC as an individual, and then it is supposed to find you a community. Under this principle of distributed classrooms, you would first join a community, then join a particular course with other members of your community. That is what college is, after all: you enroll as a freshman at Georgia Tech, then you take Calculus I with other freshmen.
The community comes before the course, it is larger than the course, and it continues after the course. That must be true online as well — and it resolves the issue of missing out on the college experience.
Your inability to come to Georgia Tech in Atlanta need not interfere with the ability to enroll at Georgia Tech at all. Georgia Tech could open a "campus" in any city that would be, effectively, a residence hall with other amenities. The course experience is still delivered in this distributed fashion, but your college experience of friends and independence is still supplied.
And for those students who do not need the college experience — working students, students retooling or seeking a career transition — skipping it does not preclude them from the education that is the actual mission of the university.
The result of this design would be access to higher education for students around the world who otherwise could not afford it, thanks to both economies of scale and the removal of barriers largely unrelated to the learning experience. Students would be able to become truly lifelong learners because continuing to learn online is the same high-quality experience, now more easily reconcilable with work and family life.
And most importantly, this outcome is not a zero-sum game: this design does not assign a static number of learners to a decreasing number of mega-universities, but rather radically increases the number of learners in the world.
This is where we are going in 25 years, but we have an opportunity now to move there far faster. We're going to have to be prepared to be distributed for the next several semesters.
We can treat that as a temporary state of affairs, or we can embrace that as our new, wonderful normal.