The Lesson I Hope Higher Ed Learns from COVID-19

It’s late March of 2020, and that means that somewhere around 90% of the news I’ve read in the past week, something like 75% of the conversations I’ve had, and probably 50% of the academic work I’m currently doing are in some way about the COVID-19 pandemic. While day-to-day life is changing drastically and we all scramble to figure out how to balance the complicated societal equation to do the most good for the most people, I find myself wondering what exactly this is going to change in the long run. The epidemic is raising a lot of interesting questions, and one I’m particularly interested in is the question of how we assign value to different kinds of higher education (and whether that equation is currently a balanced one).

On the one hand, I’ve heard comments from professors and seen think pieces about how this semester may as well be graded pass/fail, since no one is going to want to penalize students who clearly put in the effort but were hampered in some unmeasurable amount by circumstances out of anyone’s control (living at home; sick relatives; a lack of stability; bad internet; finding out for the first time that you can’t handle one online class much less five; the list goes on). On the other hand, this is a semester where many professors who have never previously taught online classes (or even thought about doing so) are going to be teaching online. It’s a moment where teaching is in the limelight in a big way, and a kind of teaching that I think we often see as less prestigious.

There are definitely some current changes in attitude: Working remotely is currently being seen as a necessity and a public good rather than a luxury for the employees that puts undue burden on employers (a perception disability activists and people with disabilities have been fighting against for a long time). In a time where governments are starting to look at food processing as a long-term public health risk, the fact that grocery stores across the US are selling out of instant ramen noodles and canned soup is a big turnaround. I anticipate that, once schools across the country finally get back (virtually) from their extended spring breaks, it will become apparent that there’s a similar shift happening in higher ed.

In some ways, the current state of online education reminds me of a lot of what I had to say about open access journals a few weeks ago. It’s a great idea that’s made much more feasible by the widespread prevalence of connected technology, one that has the potential to make education more accessible, but unfortunately one that was adopted early on primarily by big, for-profit actors with deservedly less prestigious reputations. This has changed at some institutions and in some fields, where big, established nonprofit universities are starting to make more of their content available online, but I’ve yet to see many agricultural sciences make this shift in the same way.

I don’t think this is necessarily because there’s no demand for more accessible or even ongoing agricultural education programs, either. Currently, agricultural education in the US is primarily delivered by land grant institutions, making the chances pretty high that any given potential student will have to move or travel some distance to take classes on campus (putting aside the question of whether potential students will have time during the workday to physically attend classes). In food science more specifically, I’m aware of several programs for graduate students designed to be taken online or as night classes, but I’ve never seen one for undergraduates (with the exception of one professor at my undergraduate institution that offered an online section of the intro to food science class by streaming and recording his lectures).

Until this semester, that is, when every discipline is having to migrate instruction online whether they like it or not. It’s possible that the circumstances of this unexpected and potentially-rocky switch will sour the idea of online instruction even further for professors, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the fact that I’ll now have on my resume forever that I once helped teach an online class. That’s about as much experience as I needed in computer science to land me in my current graduate position, working my heavily computer science-based dissertation. And, the same way I’ve seen disability activists already saying that COVID-19 has just proven that “the job you were told couldn’t be done remotely can be done remotely“, I think this will prove, at the very least, that we can teach almost anything online with modern technology if we have to. After this, we’ll all at least know a little bit more about how.

Once things are back to normal, I look forward to having conversations about whether or not we should.

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