It would be an understatement to say that the transition to remote learning in March was chaotic. Professors and students alike struggled considerably to adapt to the virtual platform while trying to maintain the level of academic rigor characteristic of Princeton. Lectures were reduced to hour-long slide presentations that often felt like listening to a flat monologue. Precepts lost a fundamental component of face-to-face interaction that led to a lot of awkward silences as people waited for social cues. Office hours became increasingly difficult to keep track of due to the constant cycle of video calls while sitting in front of the same screen for hours on end. If not for the optional pass/D/fail policy, the stress of learning — or more accurately, attempting to learn — on Zoom would have been too much.
The University’s decision to continue remote learning in the fall does not come as a surprise, but it is hardly the solution we wanted. While faculty will be much better prepared this time for an online curriculum, many students are concerned about reliving the experience they had last semester and are reluctant to head back to yet another year of “Zoom University.”
However, Zoom doesn’t have to be the only answer; digital learning has been around for nearly a decade through platforms such as edX and Coursera, both of which have experienced significant growth since COVID-19. Each one provides content that comes directly from universities and is uniquely designed for online learning, with pre-recorded lectures broken into segments that are usually 10 minutes max, interactive elements such as short questions for comprehension and discussion feeds, and scheduling features that allow students to set their own pace.
What makes the style of education offered by these companies particularly distinctive is the level of flexibility and accommodation for learners. The courses are designed in such a way that students feel a greater sense of intimacy with both the instructor and the larger classroom, even for Massive Open Online Courses that host thousands of students from around the world. Harvard’s CS50 on edX is widely praised for offering a vibrant and engaging learning environment in which to learn introductory computer science, updating its online content annually for students.
Successful online courses are hardly restricted to computer science education alone, however. Consider Michael Sandel’s Justice, which grapples with fundamental questions in moral philosophy and has an incredible following of more than 14,000 students internationally. Having taken the course on edX last year, I was particularly impressed by the concise summaries that would precede each sequence of videos to highlight the key takeaways from the full lecture.
Princeton actually has its own jewel on Coursera in the form of Algorithms, Part I (the equivalent of COS 226: Algorithms and Data Structures on campus), taught by Professors Kevin Wayne and Robert Sedgewick; most students know the latter for also teaching COS 126: Computer Science — An Interdisciplinary Approach primarily through pre-recorded lectures. Among my friends who took the course, many enjoyed the fact that they could watch the videos at their convenience and work around their demanding weekly schedules as needed. It can’t be a coincidence that one of the most popular courses on campus is also one of the few courses that has been online for years.
We already have a head start in the process of mass digitization of higher education that has been taking place since MIT pioneered the concept of online courseware through OCW in 2001. The uncertainty caused by the pandemic has opened up a large space for experimentation, and the University can seize this unique opportunity to do more than simply shifting lectures, precepts, and office hours onto Zoom. We should capitalize on this novel model of education by innovating upon the groundwork that has been laid by the likes of Coursera and edX and making the learning process even better than before with greater personalization and accessibility to academic content. Princeton boasts an incredible entrepreneurial spirit with worldwide recognition; let’s put it to good use.
Arjun Jagjivan is a sophomore in the mathematics department. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.