Will COVID-19 Change the Classroom?

Could the effects of the coronavirus rescue students from the outdated teacher-centered model of education?

THERE IS A SCENE that is more common than educators should be willing to accept: the sight of a professor standing in front of a classroom, imparting knowledge. In traditional classrooms that follow the lecture model, disengaged students use their mobile devices to escape their discomfort and gaze outward. In virtual courses, students respond to their boredom by messaging friends, working out, talking to family members, and snoozing while professors drone on in the background. (I have seen my college-aged kids doing each of these activities during online classes.)

As schools move more courses online, it’s likely that the disconnect between students and professors will only increase if teachers continue to prepare for class by asking “What am I going to do?” rather than “What are students going to do?” How long can educators ignore the symptoms of disengagement that students display whether they’re in physical or digital classrooms? Will the current crisis finally lead us to reconsider who is at the center of education? What will students learn today?

Students who passively wait for professors to enlighten them are like spectators at a show; they’re expecting to be entertained. Learning requires action and commitment, and students cannot simply sit back and wait for teachers to transmit knowledge. As the lockdown has unfolded and online education has emerged as the current best alternative for the foreseeable future, passivity in the learning process becomes even more problematic. In an article in The New York Times written by Jon Marcus, Bill Cope of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign warns against “using Zoom to reproduce everything that’s wrong with traditional passive, teacher-centered modes of teaching.”

Professorial lectures and minimum efforts on the part of students are two sides of the same coin. And they reinforce each other. Some students might be inspired by lectures, but many more are simply waiting to progress to the next hurdle on their way to graduation. Perhaps they counter their sensation of squandered time by adopting the motto, “You learn on the job.” As online courses remove the chances for social interaction, more students will find lecture-based courses unbearable.


If the situation is unbearable for students, it is untenable for educators. There is a serious danger that they will lose their sense of purpose and meaning, which can have profound psychological consequences. The situation is also untenable—and unsustainable—for universities. An irremediable power shift occurs when most learning happens online. Students who are disengaged can simply search for other content providers.

At the same time, online sessions are magnifying lenses for our pedagogical shortcomings. These sessions require more preparation and have less room for imprecision. They highlight our limitations, from tech glitches to socioeconomic divides. They also can be subject to more scrutiny—goodbye to the good old days of closing the classroom door. It has become common to criticize the coldness of online interaction and laud the warmth of physical classroom exchanges. We quickly forget that, with its heavy reliance on the lecture format, face-to-face interaction often failed us when it was the norm.

While the challenges of fostering student autonomy and proactivity are not new, the move to more virtual education gives us a chance to make education more student-centered. What will we carry to the online world, and what will we leave behind? As professors, how can we engage students, whether we are teaching online or in person? What do we expect students to learn about the topics we cover and how can we help them? And how will we know that they’ve learned?


As we move to online education, can we stop being complicit in a system that allows students to invest minimum effort and that leads to low-quality education? Can we abandon a format where teaching is not the priority and students would rather pursue diplomas as trophies rather than achieve personal growth?


In an April article in Inside Higher Education, Joshua Kim hopes that “the biggest future benefits of virtual instruction will come after our professors and students return to their physical classrooms” because the necessity of teaching with asynchronous and synchronous platforms “will yield significant benefits when these methods are layered into face-to-face instruction.” I hope so, too.

As I think about the future, I build on my past experience. For two decades, I have attempted to lure students into a collective effort to understand the issues at hand. I particularly act on two basic tenets of participant-centered learning. The first is that, if students are not open to inquiry and exploration, engagement is an uphill battle, and learning is uncertain. The second tenet works in reverse: When students become actively involved, learning is guaranteed.

When it comes to promoting student engagement, I’ve stumbled upon two barriers. The first is that participation levels will inevitably vary, because each individual brings very different resources and capabilities to the classroom. This barrier can be mitigated in part with online instruction, which offers new ways for students, especially introverts, to contribute. Through virtual blackboards and chat messages, students can highlight issues they’re struggling with, raise questions, or simply state, “I’m lost.” These tools leave behind traces that help professors identify disengaged students. At the same time, professors can use breakout rooms to form and monitor work groups, which also enables them to track student participation.   


The second barrier to participation is the sharp hierarchy based on the misguided presumption that professors know all about a topic and students are blank slates. Professors control all the assets—i.e., blackboards, speaking time, the physical space. They also decide the agenda, divide labor, assess results, and have the power to change the rules midstream.

Whether classes are being taught in-person or online, we need to dismantle systems that give professors a monopoly over scarce resources. We need to create learning communities where everyone can join in the conversation. Professors need to step down from center stage and move aside so students can direct their own educations and find meaning in their own learning processes. In doing so, we fulfill our primary role, which is to help students build confidence in their skills and knowledge.

Even more important, as professors, we need to share the awe of discovery, stimulating students by asking the big questions that puzzle us all. We also can unearth our own learning processes and make the scientific method behind our discoveries explicit. When students understand the process of learning, they will retain the tenets of a discipline much longer than they will if we merely transmit knowledge.


Paulo Freire reminds me that I must know my place in the classroom. Professors teach, students learn. In the 2002 book Pedagogía de la Autonomía, he wrote: “I cannot, as a professor, naively think of equating myself to a student … nor can I deny that my main role is to positively contribute to students becoming responsible for their own transformation.”

During these acute times, which have forced us to move a great deal of education online, we have the chance to rethink our activities. But even as we embrace remote learning methods, we cannot forget that technology is not the only critical component of teaching and learning. It is time for a reckoning! As professors, we can illuminate the path we have traveled. Then, graciously, we can move aside to let our students stride torward their own futures.


Roberto Gutiérrez is an associate professor of management at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.