Students Like Online!
That headline is obviously a generalization. Not all students, in every situation, like or benefit from online learning. And let’s not forget that most students are, most days, less than raging enthusiastic about what’s going on in their classes. If we are doing our jobs right, we have made them somewhat uncomfortable - it is in that discomfort that the best learning often takes place. And we pile on the work - not just to do so, but because we believe it helps them activate what we are teaching them in class. Only the rare student is truly enthusiastic about every assignment we give them.
When we switched to online learning in the early days of the pandemic, there was an assumption that this would be inferior, and that students would not do well. And there does seem to be some emerging data of grade school students falling behind during the pandemic, particularly in math. But to make that a broad generalization seems also premature. Some administrators find themselves surprised that many students liked the flexibility it offered them, and teachers did as well.
At the graduate level - where I work - the emerging story is so far encouraging - at least from the student perspective. And so today I would like to share with you the results of two recent surveys of students about their experiences in online learning environments in law school.
The first one came out this summer, and was sponsored by the American Bar Association, which is the regulating body for law schools. This survey was conducted in February of 2022, and had 1,394 third-year students who replied, from 60 law schools. There were three question responses of particular interest.
The first question was: If a return to in-person learning was permitted by your law school for the current academic year, did you choose to enroll in any distance education courses this academic year? 57.5% said yes. The second was: If you had a choice to take a course in person or through Zoom or other web broadcast where all students are remote, which format would you prefer? 52.3% chose the online option. The third question was: Do you want the ability to earn more distance education course credit than your law school currently allows? 68.7% said yes.
Now, these are not overwhelming responses, that is true. But in the context of so many who were so sure that this was going to be awful, and years of skepticism about the quality of online learning… Well, it says at least two things, I think.
First, it says that - at least at these 60 schools - the teachers were able to pivot and provide a decent educational product that worked to achieve the learning outcomes for the courses they were taking. Second, it says that - at least for the majority of these 1,394 students - they thought it worked, and want to learn more in that format.
The second survey that came out - just last month - is a highly regarded survey instrument that has been operating in law schools for 20 years. It is run out of the University of Indiana, and is called the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE). This survey was of 13,000 students at 70 different law schools. Of those, 50% took at least one course taught mostly or entirely online. 75% of those students were “comfortable with nearly all features of online education, from interacting with faculty and classmates to taking exams.” Even more striking was that almost 90% of respondents - whether they were learning in-person or online - agreed they were learning to think critically and analytically. 76% of students said they enjoyed “good” or even “excellent” online courses.
One question this survey asks every year is whether the student would attend law school again if given the choice to start over, and whether they would attend the *same* law school. What was particularly interesting was that *more* students gave positive responses to those questions who had attended mostly online, as opposed to those who attended in-person. 88% vs. 81%.
What I think these surveys are telling us is that, done well, online learning environments can be effective, and that students can learn in them, and know they have learned effectively in them. And given the flexibility (and other benefits) it offers, they like it. And let’s not forget this was only after 18 months or two years! We’re just getting started, and there is much yet to learn about how to do this well.
I find this all very encouraging. What do you think? Do you feel like there would be similar results where you teach?
Letters of Recommendation
Some months ago, I recommended a biography of the 18th Century musician Johann Sebastian Bach. That one was written by the conductor John Eliot Gardiner, and at 670 pages, probably enough on the subject. And yet, here I am recommending another biography of Bach, this one by Harvard University Professor Christoph Wolff, Bach: The Learned Musician. This one is only 600 pages! I cannot quite say why I have found both of these books fascinating. Perhaps because we now realize what an incredible musical genius Bach was, and yet the bureaucrats who bossed him around did not. And the sheer immensity of his output. For two years, he wrote, rehearsed a group of musicians and choristers, and lead the performance of a new Cantata he wrote every week. For two years! And in the years before and after achieving that feat, he wrote the St. John Passion and the St. Matthew Passion. And The Art of Fugue, The Well Tempered Clavier, the Brandenburg Concertos, the Cello Suites, and so much more. And while doing all of that, he was a sought after organ consultant, had many students, and tuned and maintained his own harpsichords. Oh yeah, and he also had 20 children.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from the novelist Andrea Barrett:
I've never known a writer who didn't feel ill at ease in the world. ... We all feel unhoused in some sense. That's part of why we write. We feel we don't fit in, that this world is not our world, that though we may move in it, we're not of it. ... You don't need to write a novel if you feel at home in the world.
Survey results from Japan (so far informal and piecemeal) seem to support the same results - lots of students would prefer to remain online for at least some classes.
The research I want to see is how students' desire to take an online class vs. a face-to-face one correlates to class size. My suspicion is that there is a sweet-spot of, say, six to ten person classes that work best face-to-face, where students can get both personal and peer attention regarding their work and their progress.
Contrast that with tutoring classes of only one to three students, where a Zoom call often can still feel comfortable and like being around a study table, and lecture-style classes of 40 or more students where it is easy to lose yourself in the crowd, whether that is online or in-person.
As I said, and speaking from my own experience, I predict that the future of in-person classes is small, intimate, and deeply-detailed. For everything else, there's Zoom.