American colleges and universities transition from providing education to spreading coronaplague

I have been asking Harvard undergraduates how their online learning experience was. “Terrible,” was a typical response. “I stopped watching after a month or so.” I asked a math major if she had been able to get help with proofs from teaching assistants during the purported virtual learning portion of last semester. “Only if I knew someone and arranged it privately,” she answered. “There was no structured tutoring provided.”

Asking around the rest of the U.S., the consensus seems to be that the bricks and mortar universities are nowhere near as good at delivering online education as the schools that have been doing it for decades, e.g., Western Governors University. Occasionally a student will praise an individual professor for being good at delivering an online experience, but that was never due to any institutional commitment.

How about for the fall? What have the brilliant administrative minds backed up by multi-$billion endowments managed to arrange? An Oberlin professor told me that the school was switching to trimesters and telling students to show up for only two out of three. He complained that it was a lot of work to redesign the curriculum, but said it was necessary due to a lack of dorm space. “We want every student to have a single room,” he explained.

Now that I’ve been defriended for heresy by everyone on Facebook I need to offend people before we are even friends. So, on this group video chat I said “The Chinese built a hospital for 5,000 patients in 10 days. Oberlin is sitting in the middle of farms and can’t set up a few extra dorm rooms in six months?” This was, I learned, a completely unfair comparison.

How about other schools? Most of them seem unable to come up with the idea of renting out blocks of hotel rooms to serve as dormitories (has there ever been a better time to get a long-term lease on a 400-room hotel?). Harvard, for example, is telling most undergraduates that they can’t return to campus (but the ones with a compelling victimhood narrative are welcome!). So the undergrads will meekly isolate in mom and dad’s house (well, actually mom’s house under most U.S. states’ family law systems, even if dad may not realize it yet)? No! Boston-area landlords are now besieged by groups of 6 Harvard undergraduates seeking to crowd into 2BR apartments. So they’ll be in Boston and they’ll get infected with coronaplague, but Harvard can argue that their infections occurred off campus. (See “12 People in a 3-Bedroom House, Then the Virus Entered the Equation”: “Overcrowding, not density, has defined many coronavirus hot spots. Service workers’ quarters skirting Silicon Valley are no exception.”)

From Harvard Yard in March:

Answer: 4 of them are in a 1BR apartment in Porter Square.

15 thoughts on “American colleges and universities transition from providing education to spreading coronaplague

  1. I remember the deep institutional resistance 18-20 years ago when the law school I worked for tried to get its professors to do simple things like use Blackboard to augment their courses. For many professors it was a matter of philosophical antipathy to using anything that smacked of remote education, taking the students out of the classroom, or use any software that for-profit colleges had touted. Some professors went so far as to refuse to put their course syllabus online! “That’s my work product!”

    I would have expected by this time almost every college professor would be familiar with the basics of distance learning, and the gap between places like WGU and the rest would be zero given all the open courseware and technological advancement of the past two decades, but I guess inertia is hard to overcome.

  2. I have a friends with a daughter at Princeton. She and her friends are renting a house in San Diego. If you’re going to be online, you might as well enjoy the weather!

  3. Phil. This is a problem that is right up your alley. You are just the person who could design a great online learning experience. Possibly design tools for others to use. Create one wonderful course as an example. What can you get up by the time classes are scheduled to start this fall.

    I once took a self paced EE course on logic design. This was before the internet was even a twinkle in its mother’s eye but it for instance would work very well online.

    Use your talents to move us forward.

  4. In the late ’50s, my father took correspondence courses in law via US Mail. After several courses, he realized he didn’t want to be a lawyer and ended up going to community college, majoring in Engineering Science, working 30 years for a government defense contractor, and retiring at 55 y/o.

  5. I would very much like to hear about more online colleges like Western Governors University.

    If Phil or any readers can suggest reputable, well regarded online college programs, either undergrad or grad, I’d love to hear about them.

    • Harvard Extension has been online for a long time. Certificates used to be doable entirely online. I’d guess AA, AB, and MA can be during the sniffle-plague.

    • The OMSCS program offered by Georgia tech . !
      One of the best for CS.
      PhilG wrote about it once long ago.

      I am a fall student , in my final course 🙂

  6. What have the brilliant administrative minds backed up by multi-$billion endowments managed to arrange?

    How about a crazy idea that. Just. Might. Work. In order to battle this affliction effectively, let’s aggressively raise the salaries of the harshly overworked and derisively underpaid university admins.

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