Five ways online learning benefited some students (opinion)

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“Being back on campus is really, really good in some ways, but in some ways, it’s harder.”

That statement, from one of my former students, stuck with me. It was the first day of fall classes in 2020, and Denison University had just reopened after being shut down and moving to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Up until this moment, most students had told me how great it felt being back on campus and how much more they enjoyed having their classes in person.

As a sociologist, I was motivated to dig deeper to understand how returning to campus and in-person learning presented challenges to certain students. I knew that the conversation about returning to campus had primarily focused on the well-documented problems with virtual learning, such as slow internet connections, challenges navigating new learning technologies and difficulties building classroom friendships. Indeed, although some students reported experiencing more challenges in the remote learning context, some students had actually fared well academically and described positive experiences logging in from home.

I began to ask my students about their experiences of what worked well when we went remote. Their answers surprised me. For some students, in-person learning has not always been designed to meet their needs. The typical college classroom presumes that most or all students are neurotypical and that the learning space is culturally, emotionally and cognitively accessible to each student. The truth is that for some students the in-person classroom presents challenges that make learning difficult. Here are five ways that remote learning benefited some students.

  1. Remote classes allowed students with disabilities (both documented and undocumented) to be accommodated in ways that the physical classroom has never allowed.

Our classes are designed from an ableist perspective. Students with disabilities have to learn how to advocate for themselves, which requires both self-awareness and the ability to communicate with their professors—and, potentially, the disability support or resource office—in ways they might not have learned yet. Although we’ve progressed societally in addressing disability rights on campuses, student needs—such as extended test time, visual and auditory learning materials, and widened classroom doors—often go far beyond measures at our disposal.

For many, the in-person classroom can’t, and often does not, accommodate varied adaptive measures either because of logistics or because the benefit of bringing these various supports to the classroom may not outweigh the stigma in the mind of the student who, at the end of the day, wants to fit in and not be seen as “different” or “abnormal.”

In the virtual classroom, some student needs were met for the first time. For example, students who had hearing needs were able to use assistive and adaptive supplements like Zoom’s transcription function that allowed them to fully participate in course learning in real time.

  1. Virtual learning brought everyone to the front of the class, placing students on more equal footing.

In the remote class, there is no back corner of the classroom. From the professor’s perspective, each student is equidistant and has an opportunity to be front and center in the Hollywood Squares–like Zoom grid. Introverted students who’d become accustomed to hiding behind the extroverted ones were able to find their voices more readily and safely than they may have in the in-person space.

Meanwhile, students who leaned into their soft skills to advance in an in-person classroom were forced to focus on their academic competencies in an online setting. Many students who are good at building relationships with professors and commanding course discussions without relying on substantive interrogation of the material were challenged in structured activities that required them to provide tangible work products in group or individual assignments.

At the end of a Zoom class, the chat and video transcripts offer evidence of the work that each student has done in the class. And the professor does not need to rely on memory to assess participation. The remote classroom leaves a tangible record of classroom work in ways that are not possible in the in-person classroom.

  1. The virtual class made our bodies and the reactions to our bodies less obvious and impactful.

When we log in to a virtual classroom, we can’t clearly see many of the elements of identity that carry stigma, such as body size and conformity to gender expectations. Students with larger bodies, who might be conscious of their appearance and how to navigate desk and chair sets designed for smaller students, did not have these experiences attending class at home. Students who are gender nonconforming or transitioning, who have to grapple with stares and unsupportive reactions from peers, were temporarily sheltered from this scrutiny. In a classroom in which wearing the latest styles is a measure of social value, those students who are financially unable to meet this standard were able to come to class without worrying about having the right clothes. Not everyone has five shirts to wear Monday through Friday.

One student told me that the stresses she once carried into the classroom disappeared in the virtual space: “It was a relief not having to worry about what to wear. I’m an athlete and I get up to work out and eat before 8:00 classes. Normally I’m self-conscious about coming to class after a practice or workout. I would normally skip breakfast in order to shower and wash my hair before class.” The difference in gender expectations were lessened in the pandemic for this student. The pandemic allowed her, as a student in the virtual classroom, to “be an athlete and not a girl athlete.”

  1. The remote classes felt more inclusive.

Classes at a predominantly white institution can feel alienating for international students or students who are not white. In the remote context, many students said those differences were less pronounced. English-language learners, for example, were able to access language-support resources in real time to help them engage more fully in classroom experiences.

The virtual class is a spatial equalizer because students can’t sit near those they know and fall into cliques. Group work assignments often spring up from self-selected seating arrangements of people who are friends or associates, leaving those outside these informal social networks feeling ostracized. Technologies of the virtual classroom, like randomly generated breakout rooms, allow us to choose small groups in more equitable ways.

Students may also have felt fewer social barriers in the electronic classroom. Many people have little experience engaging in physical spaces with others from different backgrounds and are accustomed to seeing Black and brown people, such as athletes and entertainers, primarily in digital spaces like social media. Many of the nonverbal gestures that may inhibit people from different backgrounds from getting to know one another, such as a prolonged curious stare or an expression of unease, are removed in the virtual classroom.

  1. Students had more control over their health in the learning environment.

Although the pandemic was the driving force behind remote learning for most colleges this year, students were also able to attend to other health needs without sacrificing learning. One student wrote, “I have had colitis for the last five years. This was the first year that my every thought in class wasn’t, Omg I hope that I can make it through this class. Or let me not eat to make sure that I’m OK. I was able to manage my disease without the stress that I usually have to deal with.”

Students discovered new options available to best serve their mental health needs while maintaining both their dignity and privacy. One male student shared with me that he’d struggled with anxiety since coming to college. In our virtual classroom, he found ways to address this anxiety that would be impossible in person. He said, “I was able to meditate and do my breathing exercises where I stretch out on the floor and imagine I’m in my favorite beach spot. I did this until the minute before I turned my camera on. It helped a lot. I know I couldn’t do that in class without people looking at me like I was strange.”

In Conclusion

I did not expect that moving to virtual learning would allow me to look at in-person learning in new ways. Of course, I missed being able to see my students in person, and I expected remote learning to pale in most ways to the classroom experience. But I don’t want to go back to how it was before without considering the experiences my students described. Their stories have made me a more compassionate, empathetic teacher.

As most colleges and universities have returned to in-person classes, now is the time to be strategic and consider what to do with what we’ve learned—and ask how we can prepare for the next event that might force us off campus. Can we think of remote learning as a curricular and complementary device, and not as something wholly separate from in-person learning? The classroom is not the building but rather the educational experience we desire. We should not be tethered to the physical space at the detriment of learning.

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