Last week, there was a Change.org petition suggesting that UTD return to fully online learning for the semester. While that particular suggestion doesn’t seem to be getting serious attention, Student Government is polling students about a resolution to extend de-densification, and a vocal segment of Comets have been campaigning against this week’s proposed operations adjustment. Nonetheless, UTD should stay the course of full-density instruction.
Full-density learning has been the plan all along. It projects to be reasonably safe (even by student calculations), with a less than 1% campus positivity rate and vaccines readily available to all who want them. SOC activities have been occurring with no regard to density restrictions since the start of the semester. But most importantly, in-person classroom learning is demonstrably more effective. The safety of all Comets is undeniably important, but universities are not purposeless institutions of voluntary affiliation — their raison d’être is to educate.
Extensive research has been done into the educational impacts of online learning, both prior to but especially during the year of pandemic-altered education. And the results are nearly universal: online learning produces worse educational outcomes.
A study of spring 2020 community college instruction by Bird et al. found an 8.5% reduction in coursework completion after transitioning online. Alpert et al. studied two identical economics course sections at West Point, only differing in instruction modality, and found that “learning outcomes were reduced for students in the purely online section relative to those in the face-to-face format by 5 to 10 points on a cumulative final exam.” Another study by Stephanie Cellini and Hernando Grueso looked past single-course outcomes and analyzed graduates’ mandatory exit exams in Columbia, finding that bachelors’ students in online programs performed worse on nearly every test compared to their on-campus counterparts.
A Brookings Institute lit review from August sums it up: “students in online courses generally get lower grades, are less likely to perform well in follow-on coursework, and are less likely to graduate than similar students taking in-person classes.”
So, if universities are intended to teach, and students pay tuition to learn what is being taught, it becomes patently obvious that in lieu of extenuating circumstances, in-person instruction takes the cake.
There’s no denying that virtual learning was convenient. With few rigid class time commitments – combined with the allure of 2x speed lectures – students had more time to schedule other commitments, learn a hobby or acquire a job. But for students to prioritize any of these matters over a degree that they have dedicated four years of their lives – and likely tens of thousands of dollars – toward is self-sabotage of the worst kind.
Regardless, mandating a return-to-campus that has been signposted for four months is not draconian.
The University has made it clear since the beginning of the semester that the plan for in-person courses was pre-pandemic instruction and that de-densification was merely a temporary measure. In fact, Comets knew the semester plan months ago when they registered for their fall courses, which were pre-assigned in-person, asynchronous or even the rare hybrid modality. UTD is justified in returning to the original plan of operations, and there is much better rationale to undergird that decision than simply wanting revenue from parking passes and lunch meals, as one Reddit user suggested.
Obviously, there are exceptions for whom in-person attendance is less advisable. For instance, students who are immunocompromised may have different risk thresholds than the average vaccinated student. On a similar note, professors will probably need to maintain some form of asynchronous learning option for students who have to enter 10 or 14-day isolations anyways – accommodations that may as well be extended to students who wish to remain at home.
The administration has already done its part: in-person courses can operate at full density. Faculty should now focus their efforts on creating a flexible instructional plan for the remainder of this semester that allows for and even recommends fully in-person attendance but does not mandate it. Like the implantation of de-densification – which was, from the outset, a suggestion rather than a policy – this judgment will have to be discretionary; the semester is too far gone for one-size-fits-all uniformity. And ultimately, the burden will fall to the students to respect these policies and capitalize on the benefits of in-person learning, all while ensuring that pandemic best practices are maintained. It’s time for Comets to re-learn how to learn.