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Guest commentary: Normalizing ‘hybrid’ learning at UCSD will worsen social and racial inequities

UCSD students walk by the Geisel Library on campus.
UC San Diego students walk by the Geisel Library on campus in 2016.
(File)

Two months ago, UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla said the COVID-19 crisis has catalyzed the need to shift higher education to a “hybrid” model that combines in-person and online learning. Remote learning “opens up more opportunities” for people “traditionally cut out of higher education,” the chancellor said on KPBS.

That online education makes higher education more accessible to underserved communities is, at best, naive, and at worst, deceptive.

We agree that UC San Diego has a systemic problem with inclusion and diversity, despite it developing one of the nation’s first offices for diversity, equity and inclusion. According to university data, the student demographic is 20 percent Chicanx/Latinx, 2.6 percent black and 0.4 percent Native American. Meanwhile, California’s demographic breakdown, per the U.S. Census Bureau, is 39.4 percent Chicanx/Latinx, 6.5 percent black and 2.1 percent Native American.

Normalizing the hybrid model will not fix but exacerbate existing social, structural and racial inequalities. Research shows that students from underserved communities perform markedly worse in online vs. in-person classes, experience higher failure rates because they lack mentorship, support and opportunities for collaboration and research, and may rack up more student debt. Students who succeed in hybrid models tend to be more independent, well-resourced and privileged. In other words, online learning disproportionately benefits learners who are Western, white, educated and male. Meanwhile, face-to-face connections between learners and instructors increase motivation, engagement and retention.

While remote learning may offer more flexibility, it is unclear how it will impact the cost of education, which remains the most significant barrier to access for diverse populations. It costs $34,000 a year to attend UC San Diego, and graduating students average $22,000 of debt upon graduation.

Thus far, UC San Diego has not offered tuition reductions for remote learning, and private online platforms often include hidden costs for subscriptions, software, upgrades and high-speed internet — which fall on students. Many private platforms also include hefty administrative expenses, which divert resources from libraries, student clubs, tutoring and counseling services.

Without consulting with teachers, UC San Diego and a private company, Cognitive Edge, are promoting hybrid learning as the future of education. Whose futures will be sacrificed in this vision? Existing research suggests that a hybrid model will produce a two-tiered system of education where privileged students participate in a four-year residential college experience with its myriad advantages, while others receive online modules equivalent to a paid subscription to an educational channel.

Remote learning was an emergency measure that faculty had to adopt to ensure educational continuity in a pandemic. Implementing this model as the new normal desecrates the mission of public institutions and ignores the science of learning. For example, asynchronous learning relies on standardized pre-recorded lectures that can be recycled without keeping up with social change.

While this model may allow students more flexibility, it may also further isolate students from instructors and peers. Online teaching also forces additional labor onto graduate students, many of whom are already struggling in the pandemic.

Asynchronous learning also hurts diversity — of ideas and people. Pre-recorded content robs us of the intellectual diversity that comes through lively discussions of people from different backgrounds. Further, the asynchronous model may eliminate talented instructors who have little job security but teach 30 percent to 50 percent of credit hours across UC campuses. Many are first-generation Ph.D.s and women experiencing systemic barriers to entering academia (at UC San Diego, only 26 percent of tenure-track faculty are women). Without lecturers, the pool of tenure-track faculty at UC San Diego will remain overwhelmingly male and white.

To be clear, our critique of online learning does not mean we want a swift return to in-person instruction, as the “Return to Learn” model appears to do. We are deeply concerned about using the bodies of vulnerable staff, faculty and students to test a brand-new public health intervention. We want to ensure that the COVID-19 crisis is not used to institute unpopular, disingenuous or harmful profit-seeking educational policies, including those done in the name of public health.

The pandemic’s social and economic effects demand restoring public universities’ mission to improve the well-being of communities through teaching, research and employment. This can only happen if we return to funding levels before Proposition 13, when UC was singularly focused on delivering free public education.

Only a generation ago, tuition did not exist at UC. But since 1990, tuition in UC has increased 800 percent. Meanwhile, state support has plummeted. As one of the nation’s largest employers of unionized workers and people of color, UC can become a national leader in diversity, equity and inclusion if it enacts policies that prioritize people over profits.

The most important determinants of student success are teachers, mentorship and community resources — not technologies that reinforce existing inequities. Only reinvestment in community resources, not a hybrid model, will create the opportunities the chancellor hopes.

Wendy Matsumura is an associate professor in the UC San Diego department of history and chairs the San Diego Faculty Association. Andreas Araiza is a lecturer in the Latin American studies program at UCSD and lives in Spring Valley. Akshatha Silas is a recent graduate of UCSD, a clinical cognitive science major and South Asian studies minor who lives in Fremont.