November 13, 2022

POGGI | We Deserve In-Person Education

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​​Since Spring 2020, at least one aspect of my education has been virtual. Yet, as I come up on three years of hybrid learning, I still struggle to find online classes as engaging as in-person lectures. I will be the first to admit that I am a “worse” student in online settings. I go on my phone, multitask during lectures, and frequently speed up the video to a pace incompatible with good note-taking. While online lectures are not the status quo at Cornell, I find that my performance in classes that do use them is worse. Virtual classes tend to pop up in large STEM foundation courses, many of which are already notorious for their difficult content. Many think, then, that the failures of online teaching lie with the student, not the format itself.

But I don’t think that we should chalk up the inefficacy to user error — whether a student is distracted while watching a lecture video is not a question of self-discipline or morality. At any college, but particularly one with the rigor of Cornell, I assume that student work ethic is alive and well. We are a generation well versed in online work and have theoretically had years to master the accountability that virtual learning requires. So why do so many of us still fail to learn through asynchronous virtual activities?

The answer is simple: virtual and asynchronous classes are no match for in-person lectures. Just because we can be online does not mean we should. Sure, online lectures may be more convenient and can be a helpful resource when reviewing for an exam. However, they should be seen as supplemental content, not replacements for traditional lectures.

In-person lectures offer peer and professor accountability, standardized learning environments and a routine with set start and end times. They also encourage students to meet their classmates and foster relationships with their professors and TAs. The flexibility offered by digital learning often comes at the cost of the intellectual community, prioritizing individual instruction over collaborative learning. 

Virtual classes also further saturate my free time with digital activity. Getting up in the morning, walking to class and looking at a chalkboard offers a reality check and a break from an increasingly online world. It also provides a physical distinction between educational and domestic environments, something that students lack when watching lectures from their dorm room. Most importantly, in-person lectures encourage active participation without the safety net of rewinding or rewatching material later.

As tuition prices rise to increasingly exorbitant levels, I want to be taught by Cornell’s world-class professors, not by 10-year-old YouTube videos. Perhaps I sound entitled, but I have worked hard for my admission and standing at Cornell just as I’m sure you have; it is only fair that we receive an education that caters to most learning styles. 

I find asynchronous classes particularly frustrating when the course simultaneously requires scheduled times — something which occurs in many STEM classes. I encountered this last year in BIOG 1500: Investigative Biology Laboratory and BIOG 1440: Introductory Biology: Comparative Physiology, both of which had online videos instead of in-person lectures but listed weekly lecture times though the registrar. This disallowed me from enrolling in other classes due to a “time conflict”, despite attendance only required at one lecture per semester in BIOG 1500, and not required at all in BIOG 1440 (though suggested). If a course is going to require me to set aside certain times in the week, I believe it is fair to expect that I be taught during those times.

Some professors opt for a slightly different route through “flipped classrooms.” In this model, students watch lectures outside of class and participate in class work during meeting times. However, this approach is also ineffective. Though it may save on homework time to have lectures prerecorded, in class activities often devolve to reviews of lectures rather than true learning exercises. Some students do not understand the lecture content, and others haven’t viewed them at all. This creates ineffective group work for members that have studied, and for those who haven’t, classwork becomes a poor replacement for lecture learning. While proponents say that flipped classes remove extra homework time, it also diminishes time spent truly learning the material. I believe that active learning, such as homework and worksheets, is the most effective way to retain information. Doubling up on lecture time and replacing active learning with videos does not benefit students.

Moreover, flipped classes and pre-recorded lectures allow professors to recycle material each year. In my three semesters at Cornell, three of my classes have used videos that are over two years old as the lecture component. One course used videos from 2012, with blurry visuals and scratchy audio. Frankly, I find it lazy to reuse prior lectures rather than teach the subjects year after year. Beyond the ethics of this, reusing lessons discourages professors from keeping current in the field and teaching about new developments. Although digital learning may seem modern, it enables outdated education when not given due diligence.

The in-person model has worked for hundreds of years of education and doesn’t need to be modernized for the digital era. I’m all for posting lecture slides and using Canvas to its greatest digital potential, but analog does not always equal obsolete. Taken to its extreme, virtual learning is antithetical to the collegiate experience — it negates the importance of peer and professorial relationships, the value of physical learning spaces and the routine of class engagement. Without these pillars, the collegiate experience is reduced to knowledge absorption alone, which itself is a poorly realized outcome of virtual education.

At an administrative level, Cornell should discourage the use of virtual lectures or asynchronous flipped classes. While individual exceptions should be granted, virtual should not be the default for any class — especially if it is not listed in the course syllabus or otherwise advertised. As a student, it is my responsibility to physically attend class at the assigned times and pay attention. I will happily keep my end of the deal. All I ask is that my professors do the same.

Julia Poggi is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. The Outbox runs every other Sunday this semester.