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David Ramadan column: Stop spending on bricks-and-mortar and start investing in online education
Not bricks-and-mortar

David Ramadan column: Stop spending on bricks-and-mortar and start investing in online education

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A Sept. 29 report from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) confirms that a college degree remains a straight pathway to a better life for Virginians. Still, financial speed bumps for colleges and students alike loom on the road to earning one.

According to the SCHEV report, overall enrollment at Virginia’s 15 publicly supported colleges and universities dropped by less than half of one percent, but enrollment at our network of 23 community colleges dropped by an “unexpected” 10%.

At the same time, overall enrollment at the 29 private colleges and universities that call Virginia home rose by 6.2%. Liberty and Regent universities saw increases of 10.5% and 7.8%, respectively. Undeniably, both universities have been pioneers in online learning and created financial models that have made them attractive to students looking for alternatives to public schools.

Another example of online success comes from the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, which experienced double-digit increases in enrollment for the fall 2020 master’s degree programs — with political science seeing an extraordinary 500% spike.

Thus, there is a lesson to be learned from the COVID-19 crisis we’re living through: Online learning is here to stay at every educational level.

But teaching the basics — classes required for freshmen and sophomores that are the building blocks of higher education — also is where online learning can shine.

It also is evident that those who might prefer a blackboard have a long way to go. The days of a camera aimed at an overhead projector slide are more than just old school, and the idea that we’ll be able to capture and hold the attention of the TikTok generation with a barebones Zoom call isn’t going to get it.

At Harvard University, David Malan teaches CS50, an introductory computer science class, and one of the school’s most popular courses. The professor has said it might be “a better educational experience to watch CS50’s lectures online than attend them in person.”

Writing about Malan and his work for The New Yorker, Eren Orbey characterized this year’s transition to online learning as a struggle for many professors.

In March, he wrote, “no more than five hundred Harvard instructors had virtual teaching experience.” But in a matter of days, the number jumped to about 3,000 — the size of Harvard’s entire teaching staff.

For Malan, with a decade of online experience and the support of a staff of six (including full-time technologists), the transition was “very straightforward.” But for many — and whether they would be teaching first-graders or college students — it’s unlikely that experience was universal, nor should we have expected it to be.

Like it or not, we are at the metaphorical edge of the academic world in so many ways, and how we choose to move ahead can make a profound difference for Virginia.

Today I am advocating for investment in virtual learning. And to that, I tell my former colleagues in the Virginia General Assembly: It is time to stop spending on bricks-and-mortar and start investing in online education.

Faced with billions of dollars in bonded indebtedness for higher education, Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan to restructure debt can save as much as $300 million and offer significant relief for schools facing fixed costs, declining enrollments and lower revenues.

I urge using these funds to provide support for educators at all levels to equip them with the tools they need to develop teaching skills few thought they might need. Put another way, we have every right to expect that our educators be subject-matter fluent. Now we need them to be as adept at lighting a Zoom call or editing a video as they are using a whiteboard and deliver world-class online educational experience.

And, I urge lawmakers to invest in making sure the internet is as accessible for a student in Wise County, western Loudoun County and western Prince William County as might be for someone living next door to Amazon headquarters in Arlington — because where you happen to live and learn shouldn’t matter.

In truth, we are living in uncharted educational territory. But when it comes to Virginia setting the right course, the way ahead is clear.

David Ramadan served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 2012 to 2016, representing parts of Prince William and Loudoun counties, and is an adjunct professor at the Schar School at George Mason University. Contact him at: delegate@davidramadan.com

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