Students this year have swapped lecture auditoriums for zoom calls, biology labs for online simulations and proctored finals for asynchronous assignments. Some components of online learning have made the college experience more flexible and empathetic. Others have left students feeling isolated and disconnected from their peers and professors.

The three college students we spoke to have had a semester filled with ups and downs. Technical glitches are now an accepted part of college life. Some students have had to navigate overly complex tools and platforms, complicating the learning experience, while others have enjoyed the connective nature of these tools. These students had very different experiences—but all of them agree—good communication and centralizing learning resources are steps that make a big difference to the overall learning experience.


Click here to read Part 1 of our new student series, where students describe the challenges of shifting to online learning and Part 2, which focuses on how students are recreating outside-the-classroom experiences, online.


A different kind of group project

Zach is a senior majoring in Business and is taking a full course load of mostly synchronous classes. Group projects are a large component of all of his core courses, including Marketing, Accounting and Financial Analytics. “Having all my classes in real-time definitely keeps me on my toes,” Zach said. “But Zoom calls still leave something to be desired, I can’t engage with the course material as organically as I would in a regular classroom.”

Zach made the decision to return to his student apartment to maintain some semblance of a normal senior year. However, he recognized that it can be hard to stay motivated once the class has ended to do homework assignments and study for tests when his roommates are home all the time. “We’re all in different majors, so we’re all on different schedules. It was tricky adjusting to when everyone needed quiet time to work, and when we could all hang out or do work together.”

Initially, his professors were using a wide variety of technical platforms and tools. This made it difficult to find where homework assignments and readings were kept and how to access lectures.

Simulations and social distance

Rachel is a third-year Biology major and Psychology minor. She takes mostly asynchronous classes and one in-person socially distant lab. “My professors have been really good at making use of external videos and documentaries to keep lectures interesting.” She feels like their efforts to keep classes engaging really helps break up the monotony of what online learning can be.

Rachel has been living in an apartment close to campus but feels like it’s a world away. “I chose to stay in my apartment even though it is a little lonely,” she said. “But I knew right away that it would be difficult to focus in my family home with my parents and siblings around.”

Fortunately, Rachel’s professors make good use of the LMS and course announcements to remind students of deadlines and have been consistent with their communications, including virtual office hours. “They’ve been really available if we have questions, which is super helpful when you’re learning complex biology topics by yourself.”

Since her program is relatively small and most people have already known each other for a few years, her classmates have been relying on Facebook to connect. “At least for older students, the online note-sharing and extra help groups are plentiful at my school, so we were well-prepared and haven’t lost that sense of connection when learning moved online in the spring.”

Freshman year, flipped

As a first-year student majoring in the humanities, Stephanie didn’t know what to expect from her college experience. Right now, she’s enrolled in five synchronous classes, which entails around 25 hours of live lectures per week. “It can be kind of tiring to have the Zoom camera on that much, but I like that I actually get to see peoples’ faces,” Stephanie said. “Freshmen dorms are closed this year, so classes are the main way that I meet people.”

Without a centralized course platform, Stephanie said it can be hard to navigate course resources. “Everything is pretty much just emailed out to us,” she said. “It can be really easy to lose track of things in my inbox.”

Her professors mainly rely on email as a way to connect and communicate with students. Many also have virtual office hours and appointments available to discuss assignment instructions and questions about the course content. “It’s definitely an adjustment, but I feel like my professors are pretty supportive and empathetic to our situation,” Stephanie said.

What comes next

Students are now more accustomed to online campus life. But they miss the engagement and intuitiveness that classes in a packed lecture hall provide. Many have had a hard time adjusting to their courses but understand that their professors are in the same boat.

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