In a year in which a global pandemic forced the global education system online, many lessons have been learned. None is bigger or more important than this: Fully online university students are twice as likely to say they are “comfortable sharing their opinions in class” compared to fully in-person students. . Results of the first Inside Higher Ed Student Voice survey over 2,000 students, conducted by CollegePulse, show that 32% of fully online students strongly agree that they are comfortable sharing their opinions in class, while only 17% of fully online students in person say the same thing. In the context of social, racial and political unrest in the United States, this finding has provocative and critically important implications.
Given the substantial difference in comfort levels in sharing opinions in class by online status versus in-person status, it would seem likely that there could be differences by race as well. Indeed, there is no whether it is between white and non-white students with exactly 28% agreeing strongly that they are comfortable sharing their opinions in class. Additionally, 31% of fully online students strongly agree that “diverse opinions are welcome in the classroom.” This compares to just 19% of fully in-person students.
Questions abound from these ideas. How do fully online courses make students twice as likely to feel comfortable sharing their opinions? If you knew there was an intervention that would double the likelihood that students would feel comfortable sharing their opinions in class and that diverse opinions would be welcome, wouldn’t you want to implement it right away? ?
One of the fundamental promises of higher education is that it prepares students to become fully engaged citizens. Without students having the comfort and regular practice of sharing opinions and welcoming diverse points of view, it is impossible to fully prepare them as engaged citizens in an era marked by thorny and complex issues.
Amid many complaints about the one-off and rushed nature of switching from face-to-face to online courses, there are some real highlights as well. Among them are inspiring stories of teachers and students exploring new educational pedagogies – including lessons learned on different types of learners (some thrive in online environments and others in difficulty). There is no “one size fits all” in education. Online education is not perfect. It is not preferred by all students. But something about it gives it a decisive advantage from a student perspective when it comes to sharing opinions and welcoming diverse views in the classroom.
It’s an idea we all need to dig much deeper into. It deserves our immediate attention and further exploration. Does that mean we have to be online to do it? Are there any online education lessons that can actually inform in-person teaching? The answers to these questions are not clear. But they demand that we focus on improving American higher education and our democracy.
(I sit on the Advisory Board for Student Voice and Kaplan is a sponsor of the project.)