Opinion

Letter to the Editor: Pandemic response tests switch to online learning

The switch to online learning has resulted in the use of Honorlock for online proctoring by some instructors, predominantly in STEM classes.

The switch to online learning has resulted in the use of Honorlock for online proctoring by some instructors, predominantly in STEM classes.

Image By: Jeff Miller

To help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), many colleges and universities across the United States, including the University of Wisconsin–Madison, have closed their campuses and student housing. Schools have announced it would provide classes through alternative delivery, so as to avoid the heightened risk of community transmission. Like businesses and organizations, universities have canceled upcoming events and asked students, faculty, and staff to remain at home and reconsider all non-essential travel.

 Top law schools across America will be moving to virtual instruction amid the spread of the coronavirus. Many students wonder whether they are prepared for the shift, as law schools have been slow to adopt online learning relative to other graduate programs. Harvard Law School brought broad attention to the pandemic with an announcement on March 10 that students will be asked to shift from in-person instruction to remote classes beginning on March 23, until further notice.

 In Seattle, a coronavirus hot spot, the University of Washington School of Law has been forced to move all of its classes to an online format for the rest of the quarter. In California, Stanford Law School suspended in-person classes for two weeks beginning March 10. In New York, Columbia Law School has shifted to remote teaching and plans to conduct virtual classes through the remainder of the semester. Georgetown University Law Center has moved to virtual classes and suspended all in-person events through May 15.

The switch to online delivery of classes is, surprisingly, not new. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), for example, were first introduced in 2008 and emerged as a popular mode of learning in 2012. The online courses often allow unlimited participation and open access. In addition to traditional course materials, such as traditional course materials, such as filmed lectures, readings, and problem sets, many MOOCs provide interactive courses with user forums or social media discussions to support community interactions. Several well-financed providers, associated with top universities, have emerged, including Coursera, edX, and Udacity.

 Applications to Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs across the United States have declined since 2014. To respond, many business schools have launched fully online MBA programs at a discount to traditional, on-campus business degrees. For example, the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois announced May last year that it would end its residential full-time and part-time MBA programs in favor of its innovative and popular online iMBA program, which currently enrolls nearly 2,900 students. Partnering with Coursera, Illinois has brought the tuition cost of its iMBA program down to as low as $22,000.

Another example is Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, which announced in July last year that it would partner with edX to offer an online MBA degree this fall. At $24,000, the offering will also be cheaper than online MBA programs from many highly-rated programs, which typically range from $70,000 to $130,000. Top-ranked business schools at Carnegie Mellon, Michigan, North Carolina, and the University of Southern California are also delivering MBA programs in flexible online formats.

Universities across the United States and around the world, including Wisconsin, should increasingly consider and adopt online learning, as least as a parallel mode to traditional classes, to make higher education more affordable and accessible to more students. Current video-conferencing technology, like Zoom, and high-speed Internet enable delivery of educational content without losing quality, academic rigor, and student engagement. Enthusiastic responses from students have boded well for schools to ambitiously scale their online programs. Online learning enjoys widespread appeal because it is more flexible, conserves travel time, and reduces program costs and living expenses.

 As the coronavirus pandemic tests our switch to alternative modes of education delivery, we should be reminded how online learning is increasingly relevant to ambitious and self-motivated students today willing to trade off the benefits of an on-campus instructional experience for greater convenience and flexibility.

Alfred E. Tsai is J.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin Law School. He graduated in 2017 from Columbia University, where he studied economics and political science.

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