September 9, 2020

DERY | Cornell Should Offer Online Enrollment Even After the Pandemic

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Not long into my stay at the Hampton Inn Ithaca, I was losing my mind. In a matter of 20 minutes, I had burned through the activities I had planned to pass the time during my overnight quarantine before returning to campus — a small price to pay relative to those who made the difficult decision — or had the decision made for them — to stay home.

Since we have come to associate “Zoom University” with the college life we were forced to put on hold, it’s no surprise that the future implementation of online instruction has met much resistance from students across the country. And yet, before we hurriedly tar and feather online courses once we are equipped with a vaccine, we should consider if the Zoom infrastructure that has been laid starting midway into last semester and through today is worth throwing away — even in part. If virtual learning in the second half of last spring and for many classes this fall has trained current students, faculty and incoming students (likely fresh out of online high school) to participate in remote coursework, then Cornell should seriously consider offering many duo-modality courses even after the pandemic.

The University has already demonstrated that it has the wherewithal — in both physical infrastructure and manpower — to offer education to more students. On every Nasty’s run, we are reminded of this by the North Campus expansion, which will enable more students to live on campus and will increase class size. So, if on-campus housing capacity is truly the limiting reagent in the fulfillment of “any person, any study,” then Cornell should look to other avenues of expanding its reach.

When lecture size is limited by Zoom virtual classroom capacity — not physical seating or, on the greater scale, available beds — it becomes clear how a remote enrollment option for anything from individual courses to students can expand class size without overflowing lecture halls or dorms. Beyond seeing this as a benefit, Cornell’s own modus operandi dictates that such a remote expansion deserves at least a legitimate consideration.

And, for those of us seeking immediate schedule conflict relief, an asynchronous option prevents us from having to sacrifice out-of-major interests scheduled during required classes — effectively remedying the frustration caused when the lectures of two equally interesting classes happen to overlap. Evidently, remote learning wouldn’t only be beneficial to new remote admits with whom those of us on campus won’t ever meet or interact in person.

Extending the “Zoom University” charter is also a far-sighted approach. In recent years, the vast wave of upperclassmen who seek off-campus housing contribute to Collegetown’s bloated rent prices. Additional class size increases in the future would potentially mean that more students would need to crowd Collegetown housing on the back end of their time at Cornell. Price hikes aside, a rising Collegetown housing supply that would be necessary to meet demand would just transfer the strain on East Hill residential neighborhoods, who would soon find themselves on or even behind the rowdy Collegetown frontier. If anything, online enrollment — which could consist of offering current students the option of remote learning while admitting online students as a portion of the next freshman classes — would buy the University some time to plan and build sustainable on-campus housing on a greater scale.

As such, the intent or even effect of continued online learning options should not equate to a loss of a physical campus connection. Given that many students returned to campus during the pandemic, and that many of those who stayed home did so for health concerns or travel restrictions — not due to the allure of online classes — it seems that even provided with remote access, students who were able to have or were planning on having an on-campus experience in pre-COVID times likely won’t willingly switch to online learning post-COVID. Perhaps more empirical proof is that students now in Ithaca prefer in-person classes to online sections, as implicitly acknowledged by the University Registrar in the Guide to Fall 2020 Enrollment’s justification for the modified enrollment schedule.

Compromising the classroom experience we enjoyed in pre-COVID times as a result of accommodating for remote peers is likely the more warranted concern for in-person students. Faced with this genuine uncertainty, the greatest reassurance that we can take is to look to the successes and failures of this upcoming semester: The many online and remote access courses attempting to handle these potential issues will be the primary indicator of the viability of duo-modality instruction moving forward. Therefore, we should view this semester as a test-run to help better direct us to provide online learning in the future — not as a reason to get rid of it altogether.

Though Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) cautioned that colleges are the “canary in the coal mine” for instruction during the pandemic, we should make light of this mission and transform Cornell into a leading force in accessible higher education in a post-pandemic world.

Roei Dery is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at rdery@cornellsun.com. The Dery Bar runs every other Thursday this semester.