Coronavirus and the ‘Hollywood Squares’

The novel coronavirus that began in Wuhan, China, late last year has affected higher education like nothing I have experienced in my time as a university president.

We have called students home from overseas programs on five continents. We have canceled international spring break trips to Israel, Greece and the Caribbean.

The week of March 16, we decided to suspend classes on campus and teach them online, at least for the next few weeks.

We are not alone. Harvard, MIT, Duke, Fordham, Princeton, Stanford, Ohio State, Indiana, Middlebury, Vanderbilt – colleges and universities large and small, private and public, are telling students to go home. Nearly all of them propose to continue teaching courses online.

As recently as a couple of years ago, this would have been unrealistic.

But today, the ubiquity of laptops, the quality of embedded cameras and good conferencing software have made it the default solution.

Microsoft reports a 500% increase in use of its Teams software in China since the end of January. The stock market has tanked, but stock in Zoom, a popular conferencing product, is up 20% in the last month. Google is offering free Meet usage for users of G Suite for Education.

I teach a very low-tech course (The Virtues) to two dozen freshmen in our honors program. The materials are mostly films, novels, essays and some art.

It’s a seminar, so the students do most of the talking. And to make sure they are prepared, I require them to write 500 words before each class on several questions I pose about that day’s material.

Two weeks ago, anticipating our move to online instruction and wondering what we might be getting ourselves into, I tried doing a class on Zoom.

If I gave lectures, I could have just filmed myself and posted my talk, a kind of third-rate monologue. But I worried about conducting a discussion across 25 laptops.

It worked a lot better than I thought it would. The screen looked like “Hollywood Squares,” but with more people. I could mute everyone, and make an exception for the student I called on. And her square would light up, so people knew where to look.

It’s not the only tool you need to run a class. We have another program called Blackboard, which allows me to post a syllabus, hand out assignments, make announcements, put up documents and post grades. And students can send me their daily reflections and term papers as email attachments.

Of course, this stuff is of no use for teaching dance or chemistry lab. Even in my course, there are things we’ve had to cancel. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was scheduled to teach a class at the court. The chair of our art department often takes my students to the National Gallery of Art.

And students’ ability to learn from one another is significantly diminished. People in the honors program live together in two dorms; they discuss the reflections they write before we meet, and they often continue the class discussion over lunch, which follows.

The “Hollywood Squares” conversation is a bit clipped and stilted, too. You don’t get nonverbal cues, and people on mute can’t talk over one another or communicate laughter or disagreement.

But in-person education of students isn’t confined to three hours a week in class. Faculty still see students at daily Mass, in the dining hall, at performances and at sporting events. Students see faculty in their offices and walking around campus.

As we send the students home, I find myself thinking about what Cardinal Newman said in one of his university sermons – that the most effective means of communicating the beauty of virtue “is holiness embodied in personal form.” Online instruction, however handy, can’t provide that kind of education.

Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. In a March 19 press release, the university reported that he had tested positive for the coronavirus but no longer had symptoms. Please pray for his recovery, and for all those stricken with the disease.

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