Hillsdale should be cautious when it comes to offering accredited online courses

Hillsdale should be cautious when it comes to offering accredited courses. courtesy | flickr

When the pandemic brought my freshman year at Hillsdale to a halt, students received an email explaining the importance of education taking place in the classroom, not on the computer.

“It’s worth saying a word about why college is the way it is and not an online college,” wrote college president Larry Arnn. “Since Plato’s Academy at the latest, people have come together in small groups to learn in friendship. The best way of learning requires the direct conversation, also the intensity of the concentration, also the friendship that equals love.”

That’s why it was so great that Hillsdale was holding face-to-face classes for the Fall 2020 semester, at a time when many other colleges and universities were entirely online or offering hybrid education.

This semester, Hillsdale College is testing two online college credit courses. The pilot courses are currently only offered to high school students, who can then use them either as elective credits when they later attend Hillsdale, or as college credits when they attend another institution.

While this program may seem like a well-intentioned attempt to bring Hillsdale courses to a wider audience, the truth is that an online course will never replace the in-person Hillsdale experience. If this test phase is successful, Hillsdale should not let the online program get too big.

Part of what makes a Hillsdale education unique is the small, close-knit student body. Hillsdale also has a low faculty-to-student ratio, which allows professors to get to know their students.

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Online education cannot replicate this personal quality; Even though online high school students can communicate through virtual lectures, online students don’t have access to everything that complements a Hillsdale student’s educational experience. The online high school students don’t have the same experiences that a local dual enrollment student would have: the culture of the campus and the local community; the peer pressure to perform well and, most importantly, the opportunity to build personal relationships with fellow students and professors.

As the pandemic forced us off campus and online in Spring 2020, our professors went to great lengths to provide quality education through Zoom classes, video lectures, and podcasts, and we students did our best to listen and contribute to our work write , and do our tests. But we all know the truth: It wasn’t nearly as good as being together. During my Zoom classes, I felt disconnected from my classmates, unmotivated, and overall unengaged with the material.

According to Online Learning Director Kyle Murnen, the college does not aim to provide the full Hillsdale experience through these online courses, but rather a bite-sized version that is more accessible to those who may not be able to to visit Hillsdale.

“These courses are based on the recognition that very few people here on campus can get a full Hillsdale education,” Murnen said. “The goal of this program is to make some key elements of a Hillsdale education available to a larger group of people – particularly those who may need to go elsewhere for their college degree.”

It is commendable that the college wants to offer a slice of Hillsdale to a wider audience – something it is already doing through its existing online courses, which are not accredited. Still, Hillsdale has always valued the quality of its education over the number of students receiving it, and it should continue to do so even as it explores online learning opportunities.

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The college should keep the accredited online courses limited. After all, the priority of the professors should be the students on the actual campus. We Can’t Do Everything: If part of what makes Hillsdale so special is the small, personal community, we’ll never be able to replicate the Hillsdale experience by watering it down and offering it to a wider audience online.

While offering online courses to high school students will make the Hillsdale curriculum more accessible, it will never compensate for the other core components of a Hillsdale education. Rather than give in to the growing demand for online education, Hillsdale should go against the grain and preserve the idea that the best education is offline.

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