George Ehrhardt writes for the Martin Center about a key issue in post-COVID higher education.

COVID-19 has revolutionized how we think about online college teaching.

Until last spring, two perspectives predominated. One argued that massively enrolled online classes presented by impressive teachers or prestigious universities would increase efficiency while preserving quality. The other worried about the quality of online classes, and that the gap between those able to afford in-person classes at elite universities and those who can’t, would widen.

We now have a year of experimentation with entirely online classes. What have we learned? My sense is that among faculty, at least, the question has changed from whether online education is a good or bad thing, to how and when it can be used effectively.

As he did before in his classic What the Best College Teachers Do, professor Ken Bain, the founder of centers for teaching excellence at Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and New York University, invites us to think about this question by looking at successful models.

Bain’s latest book, Super Courses: The Future of Teaching and Learning, takes as a given that we can no longer rely on the charisma or body language of in-person lectures to pull students in, and asks what we should rely on instead. As the title indicates, he examines a selection of famous college courses to see what makes them tick and how they might be replicated.

At the end of a whirlwind tour of courses ranging from physics to Russian literature to interdisciplinary studies, Bain leaves the reader with a common denominator. Because curiosity drives humans to learn, the burning question of course design should be how to best provoke and feed students’ natural curiosity.

In other words, both sides of the pre-COVID debate were wrong.

Provoking each student’s curiosity requires individualized attention that is impossible to achieve in massive sections. On the other hand, there is no inherent reason why students learn more because they assemble in one place on a regular schedule.