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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Paul Lindholdt: Online learning has become integral to education

By Paul Lindholdt

By Paul Lindholdt

By cosmic coincidence, I was lobbying my department to develop an online degree when COVID hit. All colleges and universities went online for the following year. Today, we professors are teaching like bandits in masks.

I’ve taught online for 16 years. Not entirely, and not because I’m lazy, shy or averse to spooling out a lecture face-to-face. I teach online for the students. Many of them prefer to learn on their own terms and time.

Students living out of state or busy with jobs, students disabled or averse to highway travel, students caring for kids or elderly folks. I began as a skeptic, but now I am an advocate of scholarship done in bunny slippers.

It does not lend itself to every discipline, but my reading- and writing-intensive classes in the humanities and literature adapt quite well to online delivery, as do many courses of professional studies and the social sciences.

On the national level, the online teaching platform MasterClass, launched in 2015 and valued already at $2.7 billion, will soon be issuing an IPO.

In our region’s vast expanses, key people fall through the cracks when face-to-face classes are their only choice. People who might like to retool for a new career, or run a business while earning a degree, get left behind. Eastern Washington University is doing its best to serve their kind.

EWU has over 500 classes available entirely online – some 40 graduate and undergraduate degrees, certificates, endorsements and minors. These statistics ought to entice more students, but my interests lie in what our age of contagion portends for higher education’s future.

Students working from home will never fight for parking spots or jam in rooms alongside others who are sneezing and coughing and potentially infectious. Nor will they be put at risk from commuting in bad weather.

Online learning is socially leveling. Students who telecommute can address their professors and peers on more-equal terms. A device called Discussion Board draws out the silent types: those whose favorite habitat is the back of the class. Empty banter will never chew up class time. Phones, clothes or cologne will never distract learners focused from their homes.

Students can plan their study time around the rest of their day, rather than around college calendars. They can operate at their biorhythmic peak energies, whether morning, noon or night. Course materials are accessible 24/7, so no need to schedule trips to the library or campus. Libraries these days have hundreds of databases available for research with a simple click.

Students taking classes online in dribs and drabs can sample the products before they buy. They can complete degrees from coffee shops, between jobs, while taking time to raise a family, care for parents, recover from accidents, deployed overseas, rehabbing, grieving, even sick in bed.

If online learning serves so many needs, why aren’t more programs following suit? Because some students need a human being in the flesh to address questions, spell out details and extend a hand.

For some students, email is an unfriendly second best to a personal voice and a friendly face, even if that face appears in weekly videos like I record for all my courses.

Other students, especially those of nontraditional ages, cherish their autonomy. The most earnest learners often tend to be independent types who’ve fawned in family circles and on jobs, who do not care for congregating in classrooms or being stacked in dorms as if on cruise ships.

Last year I attended a meeting led by a colleague in psychology. She teaches online. She researches distance education. She concludes that many professors fear the learning curve of online instruction. They dread being asked to do more work. They worry they won’t measure up technologically.

Sadly, too, certain elites gravitate to higher education because they admire their own voices. They love being the sage on the stage. They cannot shake the high they get by mainlining their authority or wit. Mansplaining, particularly, finds ready alibi and outlet in lecture halls and seminar rooms.

Colleges that offer the greatest flexibility (or as an EWU provost put it in 2008, the greatest “nimbleness”) will survive. Colleges that require students to adhere to inflexible face-to-face models of education might fail.

With the delta and other COVID variants on the horizon, social distancing is a misleading phrase. Everyone needs to professionally distance as well.

Online learning is more than a short-term fix for these crisis times. It is here to stay. Higher education as we know it has been forever changed.

Paul Lindholdt teaches, researches and writes at Eastern Washington University. The opinions expressed here are his alone.

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