Reflections on a year of Zoom University

The spring semester is drawing to a close, bringing an end to a year of remote teaching and distance learning. For me, it’s been a fascinating and often challenging experience. The sudden shift to mediated modalities prompted by the pandemic forced a reckoning with questions about the continued relevance of traditional higher education.

For years I’ve posed the following proposition to students in my Argument classes: “It is important to get a college education.” In their initial response students can only affirm or negate the proposition. During subsequent discussion we unpack the implicit variables and ambiguous terminology that complicate any simple or straightforward “yes/no” response: how is “importance” being defined, and just what exactly constitutes “a college education”? Every time I have conducted this exercise it is the economic valuations that win out: the interrogation of the proposition tends toward a cost-benefit analysis of the price of college tuition weighed against projected lifetime earnings. 

In arguing against the importance of a college education students occasionally cite famous examples of entrepreneurial outliers who made their fortunes after abandoning their collegiate studies. Another common talking point is the widespread availability of free information. The classical model of university organization developed in an era of information scarcity. The vestiges of this model have provided an implicit justification for tuition as the price of admission for exclusive access to specialized information and instructors. In an era of information abundance, access to information no longer seems like sufficient justification for exorbitant tuition and years of student loan payments. As my students have rightly pointed out, the knowledge commodity is less “valuable” when specialized information is readily available through web sites, YouTube videos, or free educational platforms like Khan Academy.

In these exchanges with my students I have attempted to gently undermine the premise that the “value” of college as represented by tuition costs is not linked to the “value” of information or knowledge. I’ve suggested that their propagation of the “value of education” line was hollow lip service to an ideal that they didn’t truly hold, an almost ritualistic recitation of an interpassive belief that no one really believes (sort of like my own semester abroad experience in college when I feebly tried to convince my parents that my interest in visiting Amsterdam was solely motivated by a profound desire to visit the Van Gogh Museum). No, the students’ implicit yet unstated understanding of the “value” of a “college education” was closer to the truth: a social experience tied to expectations of lifestyle affordances and class status.

This is the underlying reality that Ian Bogost elaborated last fall in an article discussing how the pandemic had revealed that the dilemma facing universities was not about providing education, but sustaining the college lifestyle:

Without the college experience, a college education alone seems insufficient. Quietly, higher education was always an excuse to justify the college lifestyle. But the pandemic has revealed that university life is far more embedded in the American idea than anyone thought. America is deeply committed to the dream of attending college. It’s far less interested in the education for which students supposedly attend. […] Joe College and Betty Co-ed became archetypes, young and carefree models of American spirit and potential. Going to college, Thelin writes in his book A History of American Higher Education, “was a rite of passage into the prestige of the American upper-middle class.”

From an instructor’s perspective, I was grateful that the transition to remote learning was as readily available and easily implemented as it was. From the perspective of May 2021 — bolstered by the benefit of hindsight and the preliminary reassurance provided by the vaccine rollout — the anxieties over a forever-changed public life that pervaded in the early days of the pandemic seem overblown. It now seems that most campuses are prepared for a return to normal (or at least the “new normal”) this fall, but a year ago the fate of higher education (along with many other institutions and spaces) seemed very much in doubt. Last summer I was deeply appreciative for both the continuity of employment for myself and other staff as well as the broader educational continuity for students that distance platforms provided.

I’ve now taught both synchronous and asynchronous mediated courses. My synchronous Public Speaking classes were relatively well-suited for a video-conferencing format; the audio-visual medium could easily accommodate the fundamental activities of speaking and listening. Yet the “space” of the Zoom room presented certain restraints and affordances that led me to reconsider the inherent limitations of a traditional classroom space.

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