Hobart and William Smith Colleges - A Massive Natural Experiment
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A Massive Natural Experiment

President Joyce P. Jacobsen authored an editorial that appears on the front page of today’s Finger Lakes Times, where she offers her perspective on remote learning versus face-to-face learning. In the interests of the health and safety of the community, Hobart and William Smith Colleges have mandated that all instruction move to remote learning after spring break starting March 23.

Below is the Finger Lakes Times editorial:
A Massive Natural Experiment

Finger Lakes Times Guest Appearance by Joyce Jacobsen

March 16, 2020

Many of the nation’s colleges and universities are about to embark on a massive natural experiment by providing almost all of their curriculum using remote learning methods. While the social scientist side of me is interested in seeing what transpires, the college president side of me is skeptical.

The online learning practitioners and companies are rubbing their hands with glee and sending emails hourly about how to use their services to move courses online.

Meanwhile, my faculty are frantic and my students are incredulous.

How, they ask, can we possibly translate our experiential learning to online learning?

Consider just a few examples:

— a printmaking class that needs access to specialized equipment in the college’s studio arts building

— chorus, where students learn to tune from standing side-by-side with their own voice range and with other voice ranges

— a geology course, with regular field trips to experience geological formations near the college

and the list goes on and on, encompassing the performing arts, studio arts, laboratory courses, service learning courses, education practicums, ……

Even those courses that seem the simplest to move online, the proverbial “chalk and talk” courses, have increasingly moved to the flipped classroom model, where class time is now mainly devoted to discussions, small group exercises, and student presentations.

So maybe online learning will generate a host of new converts after this experiment, but I’m betting the opposite: that the experiment will reinforce the value of the real-time residential education experiential learning college model.

I used to do a thought experiment in my social theory course about the importance of reality:  Imagine we killed off all the pandas, but we develop exact simulacra of them, a kind of perfect Disney automaton panda, that we put out in the wild for people to see, and that people can’t tell the difference, even up close.  Then does it matter that we killed off the pandas?

My students couldn’t even wrap their head around the thought experiment.  They objected: “Why would you want to do that?” “Of course we could tell the difference!”

They’re right.

Joyce P. Jacobsen is President of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. and a Professor of Economics.