Prompted by student petitions, government orders, and recommendations of epidemiologists, America launched its largest-ever simultaneous educational experiment in March: it took K–12 and postsecondary education online. Though many hoped the “virtual” semester would be a one-off, round two may be on the horizon. Boston University was the first to announce it might not resume classes until 2021, and other colleges and universities have likewise announced contingency plans to keep some or all classes online. But no university wants to be the first to put its semester online again. One university president even tried to preempt the stigma of an online semester with the euphemism “remote teaching.”

Two semesters of “academe” online will surely delight many critics—particularly voices on the political right who are calling for an end to higher education as we know it. Economist Richard Vedder, a columnist at Forbes, has called for “Armageddon.” Social distancing, Vedder hopes, will bar colleges from “getting back into a business they don’t belong in”: housing students. When universities first began going online in March, Tucker Carlson prognosticated, in a popular opening of his prime-time show, that the shuttering of campuses would be “a life-changing moment.” Social distancing will teach the entire nation, Carlson asserted, that it is unnecessary to pay for room and board to get an education. Carlson and Vedder have become cynics who, as Oscar Wilde’s Lord Darlington said, know the cost of everything but the value of nothing.

America’s First Infatuation with Distance Education

Colleges and universities have become a favorite scapegoat for the decline of conservative values, and Vedder and Carlson are no doubt energized by this chance to “own” their ideological opponents. (Owning one’s opponents has become a substitute for real education, so this isn’t surprising.) Nevertheless, pining for more “distance education” is anything but conservative, and there is no reason to think an online revolution will introduce genuine reform into an industry with bigger problems than planning menus. That college could exist entirely in “the cloud” is more likely a dream of those whom conservative icon Russell Kirk called “sophisters and calculators.” Such critics of higher education have become much like their opponents, especially the “Deanlets“ and overpriced administrators they rail against. They are all seduced by faux virtues of novelty and efficiency.

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American education went through a similar infatuation with technology in the 1950s, when another new gadget promised to disseminate the best lectures, centralize assessment, and turn every home into a place of enlightenment. Institutions across America, supported by the Ford Foundation, embraced television to reduce costs, standardize quality, and provide equal access to education. From Los Angeles, Compton College president Paul Martin advanced a line of argument in 1959 in The Rotarian that could have been written by Vedder or Carlson in March: “Our major concern must be for the people who are being educated and the parents who are paying the bill.” In a similarly populist tone, Martin argued that anyone who opposed his revolution was simply a “lethargy-bound self-interest group.” (Nothing combats lethargy like TV, right?) No doubt inspired by what was happening down the street in Hollywood, Martin defended his revolution by invoking the rising popularity of both television and motion pictures.

Film and television thrived, but Professor Kinescope never got tenure. The Educational Television and Radio Center became New York’s WNET. America’s first attempt at national distance education turned into the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (or PBS), which, since the 1990s, the GOP has been trying to kill. In other words, many Republicans want to kill the first iteration of the educational revolution that they now hope will close college campuses.

The Alliance of Online and For-Profit Education

In the 1990s, the Internet and the ubiquitous home computer revived distance learning. In Fall 2012, one quarter of graduate or undergraduate students were enrolled in at least one online course—and half of those were enrolled exclusively in online courses. Most students enrolled in exclusively online degree programs are enrolled at for-profit schools—a set of companies that rely heavily on distance learning. These organizations proliferated many decades ago thanks to the GI Bill. They have since become infamous for more deceptive advertising and recruiting, lower graduation rates, higher debt burdens and default, and worse outcomes for graduates relative to non-profit institutions. By 2017, one-third of undergraduate and postbaccalaureate students were enrolled in at least one online course.

Once again, the principles of the American right prove inconsistent. Republican administrations from Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush advocated significant regulation and oversight of for-profit colleges, while Democrats defended them. Republicans then reversed course under George W. Bush and traded places with Democrats. In 2012, presidential candidate Mitt Romney endorsed for-profit postsecondary education, and his poster child became a case study in that industry’s virtues and vices. In 2019, President Trump’s Department of Education, in cooperation with Senator Lamar Alexander, eliminated Obama-era regulations from 2014 that required career-oriented degree programs (many of which are run by for-profit schools) to prove that their graduates were finding gainful employment.

One curious footnote to this flip-flopped partisan divide is the role of race and class. Democrats used to tout for-profit education as a good alternative for poorer students. Now Republicans do. Distance education’s advocates since the 1950s, whether for-profit or non-profit, always promised egalitarian outcomes. Fulfilling this promise, already impeded by challenges facing first-generation or low-income students in any kind of postsecondary education, is even more difficult online. The deficiencies of online learning without dedicated institutional student support, especially given stark vulnerabilities and inequalities in technological infrastructure and proficiency, blunt any claim that technology necessarily advances social justice. The underperformance of minority and low-income students in online learning was already well known before the coronavirus crisis, but it is likely worse now.

Popular or Effective?

While today’s online programs may be more popular than their television program ancestors, greater popularity should not be confused with greater quality. The recent seismic shift to online education forces the same questions that opponents of education-by-television once asked: does it work? In the early days of the current pivot to online classes, Robert Hsiung, China CEO of the ed-tech firm Emeritus, noted that we’ve shifted from asking whether online education works to asking how fast we can launch. The National Center for Education Evaluation admitted, “Too little information is widely available about what works in distance education.”

Admittedly, “What works?” in education—any kind of education—is a good question. But there should be no question that efficiency and novelty are qualitative measures of nothing. Efficiency requires us to know which inputs and outputs matter most, and technological innovation doesn’t help us determine the proper outcomes of education: Skills training, hard or soft? Cultural inheritance? Civic literacy? Who prioritizes these goals? Students? Human resource departments? Parents? Faculty? Donors? Administrators? Even if we could agree on these outcomes, how would we benchmark success? By multiple choice tests? Salary? Public attendance at museums? National voter turnout?

The shifting priorities of social outcomes (Look at our diversity!), non-academic outcomes (Look at our stadiums!), and academic outcomes (Look at our graduate school placements!) have become a zillion-dollar shell game. There remains no reliable measure of what students are learning in any “modality” (as the administrators like to say) of higher ed, though studies with very large samples clearly find relatively poorer outcomes online—especially among minority students.

In the absence of reliable measurements or consensus, however, let’s presume with Vedder and other economists that market demand is our best metric of effectiveness. By that measure, online education is becoming a catastrophic and ineffective failure. Reacting to their semester online this spring, students are petitioning or suing more than fifty schools for billions in refunds. Those facing prospects of another online semester in the fall are demanding discounted tuition or planning gap years. If online education is so desirable for everyone, why are schools not rushing to proactively put their fall semester entirely online – despite the incredible headaches of planning a school year during a pandemic? For the moment, at least, four-year colleges and universities have decided that a semester of masks, social distancing, and a thousand other nuisances is preferable to a predictable collapse of enrollment by twenty percent or more. Minority students are especially deterred by the prospect of an online fall semester.

Prudence and Variety as Our Guide

These could all be the rantings of another professorial sorehead grumbling from his online exile in Zoomland, if not for the fact that I have twenty years of online teaching experience. Because I’m conservative, and neither an idealist nor a revolutionary, I believe in prudence, variety, and imperfectability. I know it would be imprudent for my students (or me) to refuse some online classes if they enable work, family, or other salutary goals. Life involves trade-offs, and online college under the appropriate circumstances may be better than no college at all; some students, especially older students, can learn independently, manage their time, and muster intrinsic motivation.

Apart from flexibility, when my traditional students praise what online classes do right, it is almost always against a background of what in-person classes do wrong. Let’s face it, many students (and professors) treat the classroom like a television show and don’t take advantage of being face-to-face. Those classes—and that five-hundred-student lecture at Behemoth U.—might as well be online.

Nevertheless, I must ask why elite undergraduate institutions, including the alma maters of Vedder and Carlson, offer few if any online classes and no online degree programs for traditional students. Contrary to the claims of Martin in the 1950s, these elite institutions don’t eschew distance learning because they suffer from lethargy. Nor do they survive on profit margins from their cafeteria’s chicken à la king. My undergraduate alma mater, the University of Michigan, did announce that it stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars from the COVID crisis, but most of this is likely tied to its medical system, Division 1 sports, or boosting financial aid, and not to lost refunds for housing, meals, or parking. Like many other elite schools, Michigan normally confines its online classes to working professionals pursuing specific graduate programs.

In my own little corner of academe, my students tell me that they are reevaluating not how much they like online classes in their parents’ basement or off-campus apartment, but how much they miss what they had on campus. Self-improvement, maturity, mentoring, and professional development require more than wifi and a laptop. Culture and community are incarnational. By a factor of ten-to-one, my students tell me that they sorely miss experiential learning, networking, and in-person collaboration, celebration, and commiseration. Worse still, the devices they’re supposed to learn from are coded to interrupt and destroy their concentration. Furthermore, some students have remained on campus because circumstances at home threaten their physical, mental, or emotional well-being.

Before we supposedly liberate parents and students by selling off the dorms and cafeterias and closing the campuses, we should first ask ourselves why we built and maintained them in the first place. After all, it wasn’t like we didn’t have televisions.