As the wave of optimism about returning to on-campus instruction recedes in the face of rising cases of Covid-19 around the country, more and more students, parents, policy-makers, and scholars are asking if online instruction is “as good as face-to-face instruction.” This question is not new, and has been raised for almost every new educational innovation, from television to computers to virtual reality.

It does take on a new sense of urgency, however, as all of higher education collectively grapples with balancing safety and quality in education. The phrasing of the question implies some kind of objective, universally agreed upon scale of “goodness” on which each instructional method would fall. Of course, no such scale exists. The teaching and learning process is contextual, nuanced, and entirely dependent on the instructional goals of the specific instructional experience.

The larger question of online or face-to-face instruction is really a series of more specific questions, such as “Good for whom?” and “Good for what?” There are multiple stakeholders involved in the effort to educate students, most importantly the students themselves, along with faculty members and other instructional staff, students’ families, employers, etc. The relative “goodness” of online or face-to-face instruction may not be the same for each of these groups.

For instance, how would one go about weighing the flexibility provided by asynchronous instruction for students working full time against the faculty’s concerns about academic integrity? Or how should an institution balance the efficiency of offering courses online against its traditional identity as a small liberal arts college? Or what should first generation students make of a college experience that looks different from what they have envisioned?

However, the more fundamental flaw with the comparison is that on many measures, institutions do not really know how “good” their face-to-face instruction actually is, even if it is what most people think of when envisioning “college.” Simply because face-to-face instruction has been the tradition, its efficacy should not be assumed. Course evaluations are ubiquitous, but are perennially dogged by issues of methodology and bias. Grades are given at the end of almost every course, but are a poor approximation of learning.  Even institutional priorities, such as equity or post-college outcomes, have not consistently been well measured, understood, or acted upon by institutions. While many students are ultimately successful in their studies and then, presumably, in life as a result, there are too many examples of face-to-face learning not meeting expectations for some or all students.

The question of whether or not online learning is as good as face-to-face instruction assumes that all of the interested parties are using the same interpretation of “good” when that is so often not the case. What is good for student access may not be good for faculty morale. What is good for institutional revenue may not be good for institutional identity. Greater specificity about what exactly is being discussed and prioritized, whether between colleagues or in headlines, will help ensure that we are asking better questions and coming to more useful answers.