In 1952, officials at Dartmouth College met to discuss the latest technological innovation in education: television. They quickly agreed that televised instruction might be good for other institutions, but it wouldn't work for them. Nothing would ever replace “the direct professor-student classroom relationship which has been the essence of the Dartmouth educational experience," one administrator predicted.
That’s been a recurring pattern in the history of American higher education: the elites get the real classes, while machines serve the masses. From radio and television to computers and the internet, each new technology allowed more and more Americans to access a college degree. But the privileged schools continued to teach in the old face-to-face manner, which became a privilege in its own right.
Until now. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, everyone is teaching and learning at a distance. And that has sparked a small rebellion at the elite institutions, where students are demanding refunds for online classes that they regard as inferior to what they were getting before.
Here’s the open secret: they’re right. Most online instruction isn’t as effective as the traditional kind, which is why elite schools have consistently resisted it. And if it’s not good enough for them, it shouldn’t be good enough for anybody else.
Consider a refund petition issued by students at Columbia, shortly after the university announced that all of its classes would be conducted remotely. “This transition to online classes represents a notable reduction in educational and instructional quality,” the petition declared.
Likewise, students at the Tisch School for the Arts at New York University said their school should lower tuition in accord with the lower quality of online instruction. “Students will be paying full price for an education that lacks the facilities, equipment, technology, services, and hands-on experience we are explicitly paying for,” their petition argued. “We reject the assumption that an online Zoom education is equitable in content and value.”
To be sure, some elite schools already offer online courses and programs. In 2018, for example, Penn started the Ivy League’s first online-only undergraduate degree. Like other online programs, however, it was targeted at working adults and other non-traditional students. The regular undergrads get in-class instruction, of course, and they wouldn’t abide by anything else.
So why should it be different for others? By 2017, over six million students—roughly a third of all students in the country—were taking at least one online course. And the less status and wealth you had, the more likely you were to study online.
Of the mostly working class and minority students who attended for-profit institutions in 2017, almost half were enrolled exclusively in online classes. So were 11 percent of students at public colleges and universities. And whatever type of school they patronized, African-Americans were more likely than any other demographic group to take all of their courses online.
But there’s also growing evidence that people learn less in these classes than they do in face-to-face ones, especially if they arrive with fewer skills. In a 2014 study of over 40,000 students in Washington State, two Columbia researchers found that students tended to perform worse in their online than in their regular classes. The drop-off was sharper for African-Americans and for students with lower grade-point averages.
In a just world, these students would get the same face-to-face instruction that students at Columbia and NYU normally receive. But in the the real world, they don’t. The rich get richer, and the poor go online.
“You don’t expect Joe Doaks ’58 to take Eccy 1 by watching a television set in the tap room of the Psi Gamma house, do you?” one Dartmouth official jibed in 1952, referencing the college’s introductory economics course. Nobody expected students at elite schools to study at a distance, then or now. When the coronavirus crisis has passed, these people will get the real thing once again. I wish we could say the same thing about everybody else.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America,” which will be published in the fall by Johns Hopkins University Press.