Editorial: College needs better online classes built for post-pandemic learning

By Editorial Board

Online courses at Columbia have doubled since the pandemic. That’s a good thing, as online courses can be accessible and convenient. But the college should offer better online courses: No one wants to sit for three hours while staring at a computer screen, which is how many web synchronous courses are still run.

Most online courses being offered were not planned to fit the post-COVID online environment, and too many instructors are still trying to teach like they would in-person.

The college needs to carefully consider whether it should be providing so many web synchronous options.

For the Spring 2023 semester, 170 course sections have been taught fully online, 72 of which were asynchronous and 98 were synchronous courses.

Though faculty are supposed to be trained to teach online — and many are certainly more experienced with the format since the pandemic began — too many of the web courses options are poorly planned.

Some are built out well on Canvas, and others are not.

The main appeal of online classes is that they are flexible, especially for students who commute and have other commitments such as jobs. They can also appeal to students with certain disabilities. In addition, there are financial benefits to taking online classes as commuter students won’t need to pay for parking — something that Columbia unfortunately does not provide.

At most, online classes should be an hour long or should at least allow for students to have moments where they can work at their own pace within the three-hour block. Breakout rooms and/or 30-minute independent work times are a great way to keep the flow of the classroom steady while also allowing students a moment to themselves. That may seem obvious, but too many instructors are still not doing this.

Even better, the college should primarily offer asynchronous options — and then continue to support faculty who teach this way. Asynchronous coursework allows learners the time to pause and review virtual materials until they fully grasp key concepts, though we recognize that some students need more structure.

Online learning is also a way for the college to reduce some overhead costs, which is part of the strategy Columbia recently announced it would implement to address the financial deficit.

Students want more online options, but they want courses taught by instructors who understand how to deliver the content. They don’t want to go back to the early days of remote learning in 2020 when they had to sit in front of a computer while everyone was trying to figure out how to teach and learn.

It’s been more than enough time for Columbia to get this right.