If you are skeptical about the ways that online learning is an act of social justice, check out Devooney Looser’s recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Why I Teach Online.” She focuses on the way that women, in particular, benefit from online courses, which can be as (or more) rigorous and engaging as in-person courses. I’ll add a few more reasons I am committed to teaching online:
- Students can show up to learn when they are at their best. This respects their autonomy as adults, making choices and taking responsibility for their education–exactly what we want in students. Traditional courses impose a structure on students; online classes force them to cultivate their own good habits.
- Students who are caretakers for young children (including grandparents acting as parents), adult children with disabilities, and elderly relatives can learn in a setting that accommodates their needs. Every semester, I teach at least one woman who is going to have a baby during our course. An online course allows her to continue her degree when that just might not be possible in a face-to-face setting. Nothing makes me happier than seeing these women and their babies in graduation regalia.
- Older adults who had to forgo education at an earlier point can enter it now. This is absolutely a blow to historic patriarchy. Women who lacked support for higher education, left it due to unexpected pregnancy (a significant interrupter of college), or were told a degree–or at least a challenging one–was a poor investment if their main roles were going to be wife and mother can come back.
- Students who work swing shift can earn their degrees. This includes people working in factories, prisons, and hospitals.
- An asynchronous schedule insures that students can take their time in responding to their classmates, thinking deeply and planning what they say with an eye toward respectfully challenging and pushing each other forward. This deepens learning for everyone and especially gives introverted students a chance to shine.
- Those who oppose guns on campus, for whatever reason, don’t have to come to class knowing that their classmates may be armed. For students who have lived with gun violence, this is the very least we can offer them.
- Without face-to-face interaction, barriers can fall. College students probably worry less about the physical markers of “coolness” than high schoolers, but pushing all interactions online removes some (though not all) opportunities for bias based on attractiveness, weight, disability, accent, or material displays of wealth. When students aren’t worried about getting dolled up for class, they can focus on course content and be more vulnerable in their interactions.
- Online courses make an archive available so students can review as they need. This means that students can visit and revisit class material until they learn it. They can slow down my lectures to insure that they catch all the content, and they can pause a lecture to work through an example or exercise. My interactions with students are no longer about “What did I miss?” Instead, they can review the course material until get the general outline, bringing their deeper questions to me. Everyone’s time is respected, and they carry more of the burden for their learning (which is good!). An online course is much more adaptive to individualized student need–and student initiative.
- Online classes allow students to learn where, geographically, they are. This doesn’t just open up education to them–it also means that they are bringing knowledge into their communities, which are strengthened. The rural brain drain is real, leaving rural areas without enough doctors, teachers, or other professionals with high degrees of education. The problems that this creates are myriad–including increasing hostility across political party lines. Everyone benefits when rural areas include more educated people.
Above, a map of Arkansas’ counties. More populous counties are darker. Only three counties in the state have populations over 150,000 people. Twenty-five counties have populations of fewer than 15,000 people. We can keep people who want to stay in rural areas and improve their communities by offering more online courses.
All of this means that online education isn’t just good for students–it’s good for me as a teacher (because I grow as I teach a greater diversity of students) and for their peers inside the classroom (who benefit from the experiences and insights of a broader range of students) as well as their family and community members outside of it.