Did COVID-19 Kill the Classroom?

As a university president, I am often asked whether I believe that traditional classroom learning at the university level is obsolete. I do not. But as the COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the world and traditional instruction has been forced to move online the questions and declarations from pundits, far removed from the student experience, have wrongly declared the death of the traditional classroom.

These sweeping generalizations about online learning are imprecise at best and overlook the important experience of learning in community that many traditional residential students (18-to-22-year-olds) still yearn to have.

In the midst of this pandemic, I began a practice of weekly office hours with students. We gather online in small groups of no more than 4-6 students and I invite them to share an experience, propose a topic for discussion, or ask a question about Calvin University. These times together have been wonderful, and I believe I will continue this practice well beyond this present moment.

One of the most important insights I have gained from these conversations is how deeply our traditional residential students miss the experience of community-based incarnate learning. While this is anecdotal, I have yet to speak with a traditional residential student who prefers the online experience to the traditional classroom. The students describe the value of relational learning from professors and one another, discussion and debate with nuance and passion, and the chance encounters with students, staff, and faculty before and after class.

I was thinking about how I might describe what I hear from our students and faculty in this season when I received an article recently co-published by a Calvin alumnus Peter Boumgarden and his colleague, Abram Van Engen. I encourage you to read it because it captured several dimensions of what is needed when we gather together in a classroom. A key observation I appreciated is the identification of the physical energy required to attentively listen. This is a hard task under the best of circumstances, but the temptation to 'check out' is far greater in Zoomworld.

“[There is a] communal aspect of attentiveness crafted by coming together in a shared space,” they write. “When the speaker is in the same room with you, maybe even right beside you, the sense of listening—and the importance of speaking—each becomes elevated.”

Attentiveness is really hard work. Most teachers who have taught in a traditional classroom notice when it is being practiced and notice when it is absent. It is often a surprise to students when they hear a professor realized that they had checked out for the afternoon, even if they were present in person. In the virtual classroom, or any virtual meeting, the distractions and temptations are ubiquitous, and mutual accountability is minimal. I know this because I too have succumbed to the siren song of some notification going off on my screen.

I expected traditional teachers to miss the physical classroom, but the most pleasant surprise to me is how much the students miss it. It may be that this generation of undergraduates and high school students definitively put to rest the idea that a virtual classroom is a worthy substitute for what they are seeking to learn and experience in a residential undergraduate program.

This pandemic occasion has also caused many thoughtful, creative traditional teachers to cross the Rubicon into online teaching and instructional design. I am excited to see what they discover and what they bring to this enterprise at our university. These faculty love their students, however they choose to learn, and are committed to making their virtual courses a worthy academic experience. I would never have wished the challenges of this season this on my colleagues but, as an administrator, I couldn't be more pleased to see the application of such considerable academic talent devoted to delivering excellent learning in new ways. At Calvin, this even led to a series of summer online courses on interdisciplinary themes of faith and the COVID-19 crisis. The experience of lemons may well become lemonade for many educators.

And this may be an excellent development for the millions of students who have no other way to seek an education than to learn online.

Millions of non-traditional graduate and undergraduate students, working full time and tending to family and other responsibilities, find the convenience of online learning to be the best pathway to achievement of academic and career goals. New insight, new talent, and new discovery almost always advance knowledge, so this season is indeed promising for non-traditional students, and likely beneficial in some innovative ways for all students.

As this season enhances virtual learning for those who seek it first, we must also remember how much it is missed by another key population of students. Those who make the sweeping generalization that traditional classroom learning is an artifact of the past are not talking to today’s traditional undergraduates who are yearning to be back in the classroom. We must do all that we can to put our most creative and best thinking to the task of meeting students where they need us most.