The modern society we all live in today is based on a belief, one that is ingrained in the minds of everyone alike regardless of socioeconomic status. This belief is that attaining a college education is the path to a better life, a door to better-paying jobs and participation in the global economy and society.
In many places, the belief of a college education often comes attached with a price tag, or tuition.One may pay up of tens of thousands a year to attain this “ticket” to which issupposed to give one a better life. This belief ingrained in me for a longtime, ever since middle school.
For as long as I knew, imprinted by others around me, college education was not a choice; it was a requirement that could only be done by going to a campus,living in dorms, and sitting in packed lecture halls with hundreds oflike-minded peers, each instilled in the same belief of the power of a college education. It seemed to all of society that the best way to attain this was ina “brick-and-mortar” format, I alike believed so as well.
Then came the coronavirus, its rapid spread forced universities to suspend in-person instruction and move to “online instruction” or distance learning as they call it. Through my seven weeks experience with distance learning, I could not help but wonder: “What went in a college tuition? What am I exactly paying for?”
Pre-COVID-19, I saw tuition my family paid for was merely to get a college education and get a job, but after my experience with distance learning, I realize something deeper laid in the price tag of a college education-one that went beyond getting an education.
Distance Learning, or also known as online learning, is a form of education in which the learning and instruction between a student and teacher is done in the presence of a digital platform such as a video conferencing software or an online learning platform such as Zoom or Google Classroom. Its origins go back to the19th century with the creation of correspondence schools that used the postal system to provide instructions.
However, the distance learning that we come to know as today had its start in the late-1980s when the University of Phoenix, a for-profit higher-learning institution that offered classes in avariety of skills and fields, shifted its focus on providing instruction from a brick-and-mortar to online format. Four characteristics often define distance learning:implementation by an institutions, geographical separation, interactive telecommunication, and establishment of a learning group.
Implementation by an institution means that the provider of instruction is some organization whether that is a corporation or academic institution; interactive telecommunication stipulates that it use some kind of non-human interaction to provide instruction such as the internet. While establishment of a learning group means the instruction provided forms a community of like-minded individuals whose interactions drive learning among their peers and themselves.
Distance learning is done in two general formats: synchronous and asynchronous.Synchronous means “at the same time” while asynchronous means “not at the sametime”. What fundamentally defines these two formats is how and when the instruction is provided. Synchronous distance learning means that the instruction is real-time through video-conferencing. Asynchronous, on the otherhand, is when the instruction provided not in “real-time”, but assigned through assignments and projects with deadlines.
No one format is better and each comes with advantages and disadvantages which often depends on the student and how heor she particularly learns.
My experience with distance learning was rather a sudden one. As a first-year student at the University of Virginia, I had just adjusted and settled in to college life and learning. With the change to distance learning, I was forced to readjust again life stuck at home and a learning done online.
My professors had to rework all the classes, which took time, and the information about how they would adjustto online was limited at first. I remember obsessively watching my university email for any message of what changes were to be made and how they were to be carried it. I wondered how certain classes were going to be taught. Eventually when the emails started coming in, it became apparent that asynchronous learning was preferred.
For most classes, the professor would upload the lectures and assignments on our university learning digital platform, which we called UVACollab, and I would have to find the time to watch, take notes, and prepare for the next exam,which was all done online. For me, this asynchronous format was actually somewhat nice. I was able to learn at my own pace and time. With the comforts of my own home, I felt I was able to take charge and responsibility of mylearning.
The conveniences of online office hours motivated me to ask questions and seek help when I needed it. This was something that was hard to do when back on campus as often work and classes conflicted with professor’s office hours.With distance learning, I felt I was a click away to a question or solution. At first, the asynchronous format was difficult to adjust to, as I had to deal with greater distractions around me and the new ways of completing assignments.It took some time and patience, but eventually I was able to get into aroutine, which made distance learning manageable.
Although most of my classes went with an asynchronous format, one class was an exception: Chinese. The nature of language learning required face-to-face interaction and thus real-time learning. Three times a week, I, along with my classmates, would log into a Zoom meeting to have class just like if we were on campus. Although removed from the real-world interaction, it was nice to “digitally” see and meet my classmates again.
With each Zoom session I had, we were implicitly asked to turn on our cameras, which I assumed was to help stimulate and bring some familiarity of a face-to-face interaction. Yet, it was through this little rule where I realize something that I had not notice before. With each camera on, we were all able to see a part of each other’s bedrooms and thus gain aglimpse of one’s world and personality, something that the college life obscures through social pressure and group mentality.
Amid myrelatively smooth transition and experience with distance learning, I noticed something that turned the societal belief of a college education inside out.Through taking my courses online, I came to realize that what I spent seven weeks doing could and is easily replicated online.
Nowadays, the internet is full of courses and classes one can take on just about any skill from engineering to art. As I went along and adjusted to distance learning, I could not help but wonder what made my classes different from YouTube video or a Bililionline class. Furthermore, with the fourteen thousand dollar of tuition,housing, dining, and fees, I could not help but wonder: what was exactly paying for?
The belief thatI was paying for an education simply could not hold merit anymore. As the weeksof a never-ending cycle of studying went on, the answer to this question became apparent. Distance learning fundamentally cannot replicate what I get from acollege campus. I miss the days of walking to class in a new environment far away from home, interacting with new people, living independently, the dorm life with all its noise, exploring myself and the world unsupervised, andlearning and attaining knowledge in the purest form possible: experience.
Thus, what lies in the price tag of a college education? On the surface, it is an investment ofone’s human capital, where one can attain skills and knowledge to enter the workforce as a skilled worker and contribute to society and the greater good.Yet, deep down, the college tuition is the price of a supposed future.
It is with a college education and the tuition that comes attached to it where one has the ability to put a future on hold and spend the time to fashion it with the resources and experience in a university campus. Oftentimes, people associate the value of a college education by the cost of tuition and there turn on investment, however behind those numbers, what one really paid forwas time. They pay with money and time to buy more time and take some control of the future in their own hands.
In essence, one can argue that a college education does not sell knowledge; it sells time and a belief. Therefore, amid the benefits and experience of distance learning, the transition I experience in the spring semester of my first year of college took away something that I have come to take for granted and help me uncover what lied behind the dizzying fees and costs of a semester in college.
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