Recent headlines in Texas and across the country have been questioning the return to in-person classes. Some of the points raised are valid, but they ignore other factors. Those who think learning virtually is best grossly undervalue the importance of going to class. They grossly undervalue the importance of socializing, being in a place that is vibrant and buzzing with human activity. And they grossly undervalue the importance of human connectedness with learning.
I’ve been a university teacher for more than 30 years. The simple fact is that students learn best when they are physically in class with their teacher and schoolmates. I grew up in an era when serious medical risks were part of my daily life. I went to school during the era when polio and tuberculosis infections were an everyday threat to my health. I took the vaccinations that they had, and then we went on with our lives.
When the semester started in September 2020, only 10% of my students came to class on campus every week. By April, that number had risen to 80%. We are now full.
When I asked my students why they were coming to class, they all said things with two themes: We learn better in person, and Zoom is great, but it simply can’t compare with seeing classmates in person and talking to them before and after class.
Learning in America has never been about just covering the material. Learning is a collective process that is best practiced in person. You can get to know people, read their body language, and learn how people with different life experiences process the same material differently. It is hard to do that virtually.
Great teachers don’t just sit in the front of the classroom reading a lecture. Great teachers connect with their students. Great teachers help the students own their learning experience. When things work well in class, students get excited and have tons of questions about what they are learning. When an in-person class goes well, magic happens.
When the pandemic hit, teachers and professors performed miracles with virtual learning. But that was a temporary solution. The pandemic totally disrupted our children’s education. It also negatively impacted their mental health and the development of their social skills. All teachers know that each student may have a different learning style. Our job is to connect with them in a way that maximizes their learning. There are so many things that experienced teachers pick up by observing their students in class. Zoom simply can’t replace that experience.
There are some very practical reasons virtual learning is not best. Many of our students do not have access to a high-speed, stable internet connection. I’ve had students who live in homes where broadband is a dream. Why should their education be substandard because their families can’t afford the best technology? Last year, I had students taking class, virtually, from the United Kingdom, Nepal, South Korea, Germany, India, China, Hong Kong and across the United States. The time zone differences wreaked havoc on their lives and their learning.
What saddens me the most is our failure to talk about the mental health and familiar stress that have exploded because of our previous response to the pandemic.
I have seen the negative impact that weeks of virtual classes had on the mental health of my students. Quite simply, turning on your laptop or tablet at home every day eventually becomes a depressing experience. You see your fellow classmates’ faces on your screen, but you can’t experience them the way you do when you are all in the same classroom.
I recently returned to class. All my classrooms were full. I understand the legitimate concerns my colleagues and parents have about the real health risks associated with in-class learning. We all wore masks and socially distanced, and we were excited to be back in class together. As useful as virtual learning was, it can’t hold a candle to that special experience of being in a classroom with other humans and learning together.
John N. Doggett is a distinguished senior lecturer of management in the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.