The year 2020 has been dominated by news about the coronavirus, and the concern around the world has been how we can take preventative measures to avoid the spread of the virus. All of us have had to change our lives in response to the pandemic. One of the areas that has received the biggest shakeup is education.
Korea has been a world leader in its response to COVID-19, and it has led in its educational response as well. Most Korean grade schools and universities immediately transferred to remote learning to ensure the safety of the students, faculty, and staff, and I am proud to say that Kyungnam University was among the universities at the forefront of transferring education to our online platform e-Class. Of course, the transition was not easy.
There is an old joke that captures the predicament that we faculty found ourselves in at the beginning of this year. Here runs the joke.
A professor applies to an English department and comes before the dean. The dean looks at the professor’s application and CV and says, “I see on your application the wage you wrote that you expect to receive for joining our faculty. I also see that on your CV you have no work experience. For someone with no work experience, you certainly are asking a high wage.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the professor says, “because work is much more difficult when you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Before the coronavirus, few of us faculty had any experience with full-time online instruction. We in the ESL department—like other departments’ faculty, I am sure—received a real-time, crash course in adapting to digital education. We had to learn on our feet. While the transition was difficult, every professor knows that no amount of teacher training courses can prepare us for the real-time training we receive on the job in the classroom as professors. To really know how to teach on a digital platform, you must do digital teaching, and that is what we as faculty have been doing since the beginning of this year. Our salaries are well-earned.
Since it took longer for COVID-19 to reach the United States than it did South Korea and other parts of the Asia Pacific and Europe, many American universities transferred their courses to an online platform much later in the year 2020, some not beginning to do remote learning until the second semester, in autumn. Now universities in the United States have begun, as Korean universities have begun, experimenting with blended classes in which students receive a mixture of online and face-to-face courses. Because the pandemic is so much worse in the United States than in Korea and other parts of the world, some American universities have had much more trouble with the transition to blended courses than other countries. My alma mater, for instance, began this semester with blended courses but stopped, citing two reasons. First, faculty and students feared furthering the spread of the virus through any face-to-face meetings on campus. Second, professors did not understand how to use the digital platform to carry out the instruction.
There will continue to be risks related to the spread of COVID-19, and we all must continue to be safe and take preventative measures, but one matter that is without dispute is that digital education is going to be a mainstay of learning in the universities from this point forward, not only in Korea but globally. This pandemic has shown us that the use of online platforms does in fact reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other contagions. To take one example, in many of my courses, instead of handing out in class papers upon which students would write as part of an in-class assignment, I refer them to the e-Class system where they can read instructions and post assignments. In a classroom, the regular exchange of papers, handing them back and forth, can spread serious viruses, but we have all also always known that this sort of contact can spread other common colds or flus. If any contagion spread through close contact can be reduced by switching to online instruction, it makes sense to prefer the online option. But let us set aside these sorts of practical reasons and examine why universities might prefer online instruction.
More pressing reasons for the adoption of digital education from the point of view of university administrations are the economic benefits. Though due to the virus, class sizes will be smaller, the number of courses can be increased, and many of them moved online, which cuts down on costs like facilities and equipment maintenance. As with anything of this scale, faculty, staff, and students on one side and the administration on the other will be faced with several questions for how to address the changing environment. How are tuition fees to be appraised? How will grades be applied? How will digital education affect the issuance of scholarships? How will salaries be negotiated? Answers to these questions are, unfortunately, above my pay grade, but my hope is that all of us—the faculty, staff, students, administration—will come to reasonably generous terms on these major issues as we move forward in this new millennium of ours where digital education is here to stay.