Are In-Person and Online Education Equal?

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Class Action Plaintiffs Say the Answer is No

Disgruntled students are filing lawsuits against dozens of colleges requesting refunds after being shifted from in-person, on-campus instruction to online education due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These suits seek compensation for “diminution of value” and point to an even bigger issue – is an in-person education superior to one delivered online? According to one complaint filed against the University of Pennsylvania, “online instruction is not commensurate with the same classes being taught in person.”

More than 60 colleges have been hit with class-action lawsuits from students who felt shortchanged when an online model suddenly replaced their in-person education. These students are demanding refunds on tuition and fees equal to the difference between the education they paid for and what they actually received when campuses shut down to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

According to a recent Yale Daily News survey, 52% of student respondents from the classes of 2021 through 2023 (about 35% of Yale’s undergraduate student population) said that they are “likely” to postpone enrollment this fall if students are not allowed to return to the campus for in-person classes. However, if they can “live, learn, and attend class in person,” just 7% of those surveyed said they would consider taking the semester off. About 25% of the student respondents said they would consider taking time off if a hybrid model allowing some in-person activities and primarily online education is offered.

These results seem to indicate that Yale and other elite U.S. universities like Brown, Columbia, Duke, Georgetown, Rutgers and others will have a tough time keeping tuition revenues up during a virtual semester and might have to make a difficult decision: allow students back on campus, or risk losing them for good. 

In 1991, when the Web opened to the public, online education, as we know it today, was born. By 2009, more than 5.5 million students around the world were enrolled in at least one online college course. The value of virtual instruction vs. in-person education has been the subject of continual debate ever since. Proponents insist that online teaching is more flexible than traditional classroom instruction, has the potential to reach a wider audience, and fosters an intellectual community well-positioned for the future, but many remain unconvinced of its merits.

John Villasenor, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes that online instruction, even when provided by a knowledgeable instructor skilled in remote teaching, falls far short of an education delivered in person. According to Villasenor:

“A good lecture or seminar has its foundation in words but gains its texture and flow from countless other subtle cues and interactions in the classroom. These include the body language of the students that an alert instructor will observe and use in modulating the pace and content of the discussion, the pauses and inflections in student questions that would escape capture by a microphone, and the dynamism that occurs because each student, sitting among different neighbors at a unique location in the room, experiences and engages with the class slightly differently.

A course is also made effective by the unscripted interactions that occur as students gather before and after the class, and by the simple fact that the physical act of getting to class requires at least some investment of time and energy. In short, attending a well-run class in person is immersive and engaging in a way that far exceeds anything that consumer technology can possibly hope to deliver now or in the foreseeable future.”

Many college students found it challenging to focus on their classes after the March 2020 transition to virtual learning, still Villasenor says these challenges weren’t related to their own laziness – they were just being human. “A class experience confined to a laptop screen doesn’t only involve physical separation; it also imposes a psychological distance that makes it objectively harder to focus attention. Everyone—students, faculty, and college administrators—knows that a lot is lost when instruction is forced out of the classroom and onto Zoom.”

While in-person instruction is the preferred method for most, the pandemic has required adjustment to classes delivered remotely for students’ safety, but they don’t have to like it. Jamie Warren, a second-year graduate student at the University of Chicago, recently told Inside Higher Ed that an education dependent on an internet connection that sometimes makes it difficult to see and hear the instructor is not what she signed up for. “Sitting in my own home, and not in a gorgeous classroom paid for by rich donors and students’ tuition – that’s not what I was promised,” she said.

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