In late August, nursing students at the University of Pennsylvania joined what’s become a collegiate rallying cry throughout the pandemic: demands for refunded tuition. While nursing students cite a specific lack of access to in-person clinical training, schools including Drexel, the University of Miami, Brown, and others nationwide have been slapped with class-action lawsuits more broadly decrying their decision to charge full (or near-full) tuition from students who can’t access in-person education with campuses closed due to COVID-19. Although schools like Penn have discounted some fees this fall, some students believe those steps don’t go far enough to cover the gap between remote and in-person learning since the pandemic shuttered campuses in March.

To tap this debate, The Inquirer asked a Penn undergraduate student and a professor: Should schools refund students for COVID-impacted semesters?


Yes: Online classes are significantly less than what students have to sacrifice.

By Kaliyah Dorsey

The annual price tag to receive a private undergraduate university education in Philadelphia peaks at over $50,000, leaving families spending thousands of dollars a year in exchange for the promise of a world-class education that will open doors of opportunity for their child.

Readings, PowerPoints, and discussion boards aren’t nearly the end-all-be-all of what makes a class effective or fulfilling. Successful learning depends on more than a student’s access to WiFi and a computer. It is crucial to consider the ways that a remote semester blurs the line between work and home, consequently increasing the emotional labor learning places on students when thinking about what a semester completely online is really worth relative to an in-person one.

In an article for the Atlantic, Julie Beck spoke with Arlie Hochschild, who introduced the term “emotional labor” in her 1983 book The Managed Heart, to understand what such labor really entails. Hochschild defines it as “the work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for that job.”

Essentially, emotional labor means that while you may be expected to also perform physical and mental labor for a job, part of your value hinges on your capacity to manage and produce a particular feeling. If you do not provide this emotion, you feel alienated. This term is often used to describe the idea that certain jobs require certain emotions. A cop needs to act tough, while a flight attendant should be sweet and friendly.

This May 2019 photo shows Drexel University in Philadelphia. Students at more than 25 universities are filing lawsuits demanding tuition refunds from their schools after finding that the online classes they are being offered do not match up to the classroom experience. Grainger Rickenbaker, a freshman who filed a class-action lawsuit against Drexel, said the online classes he’s been taking are poor substitutes for classroom learning.
Matt Rourke / AP
This May 2019 photo shows Drexel University in Philadelphia. Students at more than 25 universities are filing lawsuits demanding tuition refunds from their schools after finding that the online classes they are being offered do not match up to the classroom experience. Grainger Rickenbaker, a freshman who filed a class-action lawsuit against Drexel, said the online classes he’s been taking are poor substitutes for classroom learning.

Remote schooling already demands mental labor — more filling out planners, taking notes, writing papers, and self-instructing such as researching concepts when peers and professors are not as readily accessible — which may be annoying and draining. Add to that emotional labor that makes a student feel less valuable and/or alienated.

Universities maintain prestige, in part, by admitting the brightest and most intellectually engaged students. If you attend class and begin to panic when the teacher calls on you, or your emotions otherwise inhibit you from displaying your ideas — all more likely under the stress of the coronavirus — you will likely feel like your value has declined. Your ability to do well in that class is determined by your ability to juggle physical and mental labor, while simultaneously managing anxiety by up keeping the image of a valuable and successful college student. As Hochschild says: “I do think that managing anxiety associated with obligatory chores is emotional labor.” And “obligatory chores” certainly include what you have to do to, at bare minimum, pass a class, like attend virtual recitations and class meetings.

“What kind of $50,000-a-year education requires students to maintain a ‘normal’ appearance, teaching themselves more than usual, all while in the same room they socialize, workout, sleep, and relax in?”

Kaliyah Dorsey

Students and their families pay thousands of dollars to receive a quality education that will lead to full-time employment and a successful career. What kind of $50,000-a-year education requires students to maintain a “normal” appearance, teaching themselves more material than usual, all while in the same room they socialize, workout, sleep, and relax in — amid a global crisis? Some students are at home in harmful family situations, while others still don’t have their own room or space to work in, making it even harder to “get in character” when class time rolls around.

For both public and private colleges and universities, who make a business of educating the future leaders of tomorrow, it is urgent that they shift from a business view to a more graceful and compassionate one. Decreasing the cost of tuition is the bare minimum in acknowledging the clear disparity between remote and in-person classes.

Kaliyah Dorsey is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, studying English and communications.

Dorrance Hamilton Hall at the University of the Arts is photographed on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Students at the school started a petition for a refund of some of the tuition now that classes have been moved online for the rest of the semester due to the coronavirus.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Dorrance Hamilton Hall at the University of the Arts is photographed on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Students at the school started a petition for a refund of some of the tuition now that classes have been moved online for the rest of the semester due to the coronavirus.

No: We don’t know enough about teaching, period, to gauge what students are missing.

By Jonathan Zimmerman

Several years ago, I attended a debate about online education. One side said virtual classes would allow the best professors to reach the largest number of students for the least cost. The other side warned about rote instruction, technical mishaps, and inequitable access to WiFi in the brave new online world.

So one team said everything would be better, and the other said everything would be worse. But to sustain either claim, you would have to know what students were already learning in face-to-face classes.

We don’t, which is why we should not offer discounts for virtual instruction right now. Over the past century, colleges and universities have failed to create a rigorous system for evaluating teaching. We really have no idea whether our online instruction this semester is below the professional norm because we don’t have such a norm. We’re amateurs.

That doesn’t mean we all teach badly because amateurs can be really good at what they do. It means we lack a shared standard for good practice and a mechanism for judging whether we’re meeting it. The books that I write — including, ironically, my forthcoming history of college teaching — are evaluated by experts in my field. But there is no comparable peer review of my instruction.

I’m starting my fifth year at Penn, and I’ve never been observed by a colleague or supervisor in class. I could be terrific or terrible or — more likely — somewhere in between. But nobody would know.

True, our students rate us every semester. Student evaluations can tell you important things about a professor, like whether she returns written work promptly and makes herself available outside of class.

But they can’t tell you how well the professor teaches, which requires expert judgment. I couldn’t visit a physicist’s class and evaluate his instruction because I don’t know enough about physics. The same goes for his students. They’re amateurs, too, and we shouldn’t rely on them to assess his teaching. Only his colleagues can do that, and — for the most part — they don’t.

Nor do most faculty members receive serious training for the classroom. As a doctoral student in history, I spent many years learning the methods and practices of research in my discipline. But my teaching preparation amounted to a few short lectures and workshops, followed by a none-too-reassuring quip that I would find out the rest on the job.

“We can’t put a dollar sign on something that we have never bothered to measure.”

Jonathan Zimmerman

Over the past two decades, psychologists and other learning specialists have developed a strong body of scholarship about the most effective ways to teach college students. But it remains the “missing course” — as Temple professor David Gooblar calls it — for most faculty members, who don’t study it. And we can’t teach what we don’t know.

Most of all, we can’t put a dollar sign on something that we have never bothered to measure. This semester, I’m teaching two courses online that I used to instruct face-to-face. Are my students learning less now? By what percent? It’s anybody’s guess.

I truly wish we could give a discount to all students who were forced to move from the classroom to Zoom. But teaching itself has been so discounted that we can’t calculate how much they should get back. We simply don’t know enough about how good — or bad — we have been.

The real issue at our universities isn’t “online instruction” — it’s the amateur status of all instruction. The real question is how long our students — and their families, and their governments — will abide by it.

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 next month by Johns Hopkins University Press.


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