Two years after the peak of the COVID-19 epidemic, the University of Illinois is battling a pandemic of its own making – online courses.
Since 2019, the University has seen a 91% increase in online course sections offered, while the number of in-person sections has decreased by 2%.
As stated in the University’s official response to the FOIA, “Due to the way the University tracks numbers, the data provided reflects the number of sections rather than courses. A single course may be offered in multiple sections, which may be at different times and locations, including online. However, the surprising increase in the number of online sections suggests that online courses are here to stay.
In the fall of 2019, before a global pandemic ended student life nationwide, the University offered 703 course sections online. Today, they offer 1,346. The number of in-person sections, while on the rise since COVID-19 was at its peak, has fallen slightly from 2019 numbers, despite admissions being at an all-time high.
For some, online courses offer respite from the stresses of university learning. They offer a level of flexibility that in-person classes do not. If you have a busy semester, it may be in your best interest to substitute an online section.
But for many, tedious distance learning has gotten old, and the University’s continued culture of online learning post-COVID-19 has created myriad problems for students.
First, teachers can scapegoat teaching. During the pandemic, professors abandoned synchronous Zoom lectures in favor of pre-recorded asynchronous lectures and discussion forums. For some classes, this pivot remained after COVID-19. What was once an in-person course is now done entirely online.
Despite virtual communication channels, it is difficult to coordinate group meetings for asynchronous classes. Without a designated class time, there is no guarantee that the schedule will work and people will respond.
This asynchronous style of teaching hasn’t dispersed with the rest of the COVID-19 precautions, as some classes remain completely independent and students are on their own. If these were electives, that would be fine, but they are not, because some of these courses are general courses and major-specific courses.
Brookings, a highly recognized nonpartisan think tank, abstract research on university student performance in online learning. Almost all studies indicate a decrease in student performance, preparation and participation. They found that students did not retain information taught from online prerequisites, fell behind, or lacked information entirely.
Last semester, the University was one of four Big Ten schools to opt for a remote start in the spring, despite the obligation of masks and vaccinations to even set foot on campus. During the pandemic, the University did what it believed was best for public health and safety. The question is, even after realizing that online learning is an inferior option, why hasn’t the University gone back to primarily in-person learning?
It should be noted that the only “p” that has not decreased is the price. Tuition and fees are determined by the number of credit hours a student takes and their residency status. They are not course specific, which means that an online course costs the same as an in-person course. This year marks the second consecutive tuition increase since the COVID-19 pandemic, when most courses were delivered online. The basic tuition has increase over $400 for in-state residents and over $1,000 for out-of-state residents.
Online learning does not require building space or the traditional cost of in-person instruction. This saves the University money to offer courses remotely as it shifts the majority of external costs and responsibilities to students using their own Wifi and computer.
Once a course has been produced online, it costs the University no extra effort to maintain it. Maximizing online courses allows the University to enroll more students in stand-alone courses, providing it with a nickel-and-dime student avenue for subsidized education with online courses.
There are also real-world implications. Students do not have the same relationships with faculty and peers as students who graduated before the pandemic. Socializing and networking are essential for career success, but online learning stifles it.
Many professors still only offer virtual office hours, an added challenge for students trying to build relationships in a completely remote classroom. This creates a problem when looking for letters of recommendation for graduate school applications, trying to find an advisor for a thesis or research project, or seeking employment advice.
Ask students if they would like take an online course over an in-person class. They won’t.
Ask university students if they feel ready to graduate. They don’t.
COVID-19 is now part of our daily lives, and it is not going away for the foreseeable future. But how long should students be controlled by her? The University needs to refocus its efforts on in-person learning and the needs of its students. Students should be back in class for their mental, social and academic well-being. It’s time.
Micky is a senior at LAS.