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McGill University campus is seen in this file photo from June 21, 2016 in Montreal. Some Canadian universities say classes this fall will be offered primarily online as uncertainty over the COVID-19 pandemic continues.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto

The fast-break virus-driven move to online education is a miniature crisis within a global one. It is non-fatal in terms of human life, of course, but may prove devastating in more subtle ways. Among other things, the massive and sudden shift in teaching at all levels exposes social and economic faultlines that predate the current pandemic.

In the United States, as City University of New York instructor Corey Robin wrote earlier this month, the biggest gap is between wealthy private universities and public state schools. The former, with robust infrastructure, enviable brand names and mostly well-heeled students, can weather the storm. At places such as CUNY, where I once taught, this is not so, not least in the uneven distribution of access to affordable internet connections.

Meanwhile, different approaches to college reopening are quickly creating asymmetries in the experience students can expect. Even at places where in-person teaching will resume in the fall, the social and cultural aspects of campus life will be almost entirely absent. Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” If, as is usually thought, he meant that true education happens outside the seminar room, that kind of learning is simply no longer available on neutron-bombed campuses. There will be no college culture for the foreseeable future: no keg parties, no crowded football games, no grassy quads and dreaming spires, no rallies or late-night residential bull sessions.

Adding to these deficits are polls that show a majority of students consider online instruction “inferior” to physical gathering in classrooms and lecture halls. An estimated one-third of incoming freshmen are wondering whether university is even a good idea right now, according to a survey commissioned by the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Canadian Federation of Students, while some disgruntled current undergraduates have agitated for tuition-fee refunds or reductions.

Small liberal arts colleges are among the most vulnerable here. An old graduate school friend of mine who teaches at one such place wrote that a liberal arts college such as his “was already living beyond its means … as the comprehensive fee rose to an obscene $75,000 per year. Many houses of cards have been exposed.” Such institutions face financial collapse and permanent closing.

In Canada, where the postsecondary system is almost entirely public, such bad deals are not so common. Nobody here pays $75,000 a year in fees to attend a second-tier college. But what about smaller regional or teaching-intensive schools? Can anyone, in good conscience, charge full-whack tuition to students who are sitting at home – maybe living with their parents – staring at time-delay faces on a screen or watching quickly assembled YouTube videos and PowerPoint presentations?

At the University of Toronto, where I currently teach, we’ve been told that we should consider adopting a system called “HyFlex Dual Delivery.” This jargony buzz-phrase smacks of an advanced laser weapon or intercontinental ballistic missile, but really it just means offering simultaneous in-person and online versions of university courses. Given physical distancing, the in-person option will presumably be available only for small classes; we are then advised to respect the needs of students who won’t attend in person, and replicate the course online.

To those of us who see a pedagogical contradiction, not just an experiential gap, in the very idea of a webinar, that now-ubiquitous portmanteau word, this development is anathema. In my own discipline of philosophy, the centrality of face-to-face Socratic engagement, the special benefits of group interlocution with nothing but a shared text before us, cannot survive the lockstep march online. Even a hybrid model – that’s what the “Hy” in “HyFlex” means – will not rescue us. Hybrid is just the new synonym for “we have no idea.”

And yet, over any possible objection or plea for discussion, online education is what we are forced to accept. Like most instructors, I will do my level best to approximate real seminars and lectures under new circumstances. But we owe it to our students and ourselves to acknowledge that these are, and can only be, poor shadows of the real thing.

I’ve heard administrators insist that online instruction is just a “change in delivery system,” not a diminution of content. But this bureaucratic bromide wilfully ignores the wisdom of Marshall McLuhan, whose work I often teach. The medium is always the message. You can reduce a seminar to a distortion-addled screen, sure, but that will never substitute for being there.

I’m reminded that the etymology of “seminar” refers both to places where learning happens – seminaries, the matrix of modern universities – and also to what happens there: Seeds are planted, ideally later to bear intellectual fruit. To paraphrase Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard: Ideas are big; it’s the screens that got small. The fact that we’ve been forced willy-nilly into this viral-virtual corner is no solace or solution.

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