Do online classes diminish the value of higher education?

By Mathew Wong
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, June 9, 2020
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The coronavirus provides a good chance for us to revisit the key values higher education represent, and explore the extent to which the value of universities is diminished when migrated online. [Photo/VCG]

While education officials and school administrators have struggled to respond in a timely way to the COVID-19 pandemic and maintain quality education, students continue to express their dissatisfaction towards online classes, a teaching mode temporarily adopted by schools across the world. 

It is reported that since schools were closed amid lockdown, more than 50 colleges and universities in the U.S. have been sued by students for a tuition refund, based on an argument that they weren't paying $70,000 per year for online classes. 

This is rejected by universities, maintaining that major school services, though shifted to online, remain normal, and most importantly, degree conferral has been unaffected. 

The situation has reached an impasse, as neither side is going to compromise, and it is still uncertain how these disputes can be resolved. Here then, let us go back to the basics and ask: Do these students get what they expect or promised from tertiary education? If not, what exactly are they paying for? 

If higher education is viewed as a commodity, the most valuable part is arguably the degree with a tangible credential for developing a career. That is in and of itself a very valuable end, as a degree from a prestigious university can open doors to interview opportunities. In fact, many students simply try to get through the entire study process with graduation as their ultimate goal. 

Nonetheless, the degree certificate, however decent, does not represent everything in education, such as the type of practical skills you acquire, and what personal relationships you have built throughout the education process. Those suing their universities argue that, without physical interaction, the quality of instruction is largely diminished. 

And, compared with brick-and-mortar education, e-learning lacks not only in-person learning experiences, but everything else attached to that. Science majors, for example, complained that there is no way to compare online instruction to what traditional classes could provide, as they find nowhere to conduct experiments. All these add up to the diminution or dilution in the value of universities. 

True, as customers, students are entitled to demand compensation as they do not get what they actually paid for. However, should we reckon colleges and universities as corporations who enter into a business relationship with students? 

Many agree that colleges and universities are becoming business ventures. It is estimated that, from 1980 to 2014, the tuition fees of American universities rose 1,120%, which is a harsh fact proving that universities have gradually transformed tertiary education to be more lucrative than instructive. 

A large number of students even have to take out huge loans to fill a tuition gap. As such, these colleges and universities are responsible for providing "quality" experiences for students; and when the value of these college experiences is diminished, tuition refund is reasonable. 

College administrators, however, are not on the same page. It is argued that they are not to blame for possible losses or lost values caused by the coronavirus; in the face of such a crisis, universities are as vulnerable, if not more, than other revenue-dependent sectors. 

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, continuing economic downturn with uncertainties has forced schools to wrestle with financial austerity, especially for public colleges and universities.

Moreover, they would likely add to shrinkage in the internationalization of universities on an unexpected scale because of a travel ban and the difficulty of obtaining a visa. 

Even so, the degree still retains its value and teaching has not been suspended, which already are the best compensations that universities have been able to make, unlike businesses potentially able to cut costs by asking their employees to go on unpaid leave or even laying them off. 

On the other hand, some educators assume that it is unreasonable to regard universities as businesses simply because of their expensive tuition fees. First, it is believed the value of higher education lies in creativity, matters of the mind, and students' ability to understand the world, rather than giving classroom lectures. 

Colleges and universities can endow students with not only knowledge, but also lifetime potential and enormous opportunities. 

Second, higher education is a driver of economic development, as they could nurture a quality workforce, which could further help lower the level of unemployment and poverty. Lastly, higher education could contribute to national power by innovating and promoting new technologies. 

Admittedly, the biggest obstacle for both parents and students is affordability and unfortunately many have turned to e-learning platforms, such as Coursera and Udacity, where they could get certificates and even a degree at much lower cost. 

However, much available data proves higher education is still worth it: College graduates earn much more than non-graduates. Also, these alternative platforms are far from mature, online learning sources of which could be insufficient and unreliable, especially compared with Zoom classes that many students have been attending amid the pandemic. 

Now, due to social distancing orders, higher education as a whole is moved online where professors and students could only meet via internet. Not only students, educators are also experiencing a difficult time as it is much harder to understand the progress of the class through an electronic platform. 

While students ask for tuition refund because of the "diluted" learning experiences, colleges and universities are also undertaking huge financial burdens. The coronavirus provides a good chance for us to revisit the key values higher education represent, and explore the extent to which the value of universities is diminished when migrated online. 

Mathew Wong is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the Education University of Hong Kong.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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