Before COVID-19, online education was considered a viable option for students with many benefits. Countless colleges, such as the University of Illinois and Northeastern University, have made the case that online learning helps students to develop more self-motivation, discipline, responsibility, and improved communication skills. However, most students who left in-person learning during the coronavirus quarantine had already developed these skills through organizations and clubs, jobs, or other responsibilities that they were involved in. These activities helped them improve their time management and cultivate discipline in order to maintain their success in school.
The mass move to virtual learning during the pandemic has provided a prime opportunity to assess the quality and viability of a strictly online system of education. The overwhelming reactions from students and professors during the rollout of remote learning were complaints and frustration. Students reported that they experienced a decrease in motivation and discipline during the transition to online learning, and many hope to return to in-person instruction quickly, suggesting that the widely touted advantages of online learning may not be as clear as once thought.
An article from Inside Higher Ed asserts that the central problem with online learning centers on the lack of human interaction. The issue with student success with online learning was not with their ability to handle technology but instead with what makes learning so enjoyable: human interaction. One of the best parts of in-person learning is hearing other perspectives, asking intriguing questions in real-time, and being involved in a lively discussion (without the interruptions of time lags or tech glitches). When these crucial parts of education are removed from the equation, learning becomes just another mundane routine of life. Interactions in the classroom with professors and peers challenge students and test their knowledge. With online learning, students have diminished opportunity to ask probing questions and, as a result, merely memorize facts that are presented.
There is no denying that technology has expanded the accessibility of online learning and allowed higher education to reach more and different groups of students. However, with a technology-centered education system, students miss out on human interaction, which is the crucial element in developing well-rounded, competent learners, workers, and citizens. With in-person learning, students have the opportunity to hear different perspectives and be confronted with ideas that differ from their own. By communicating different ideas, students become more aware of others. Body language and emotion plays a significant role in the development of well-rounded individuals and being aware of others. When students participate in live class discussions or debates, they adjust their presentation based on the body language and emotions of others. With online learning, this is a challenge due to internet lags or other glitches. Besides, students may not even be able to see other students if cameras are not turned on. An inability to view each other and use non-verbal communication causes students to disengage, and it becomes more of watching a performance than actively participating in the instruction or learning.
Looking forward to a time after COVID-19, how should technology fit into higher education? An article published by EdTech argues that the transition online was rushed and that proper online learning takes “more planning and design.” Some of the better online courses tried mimicking in-person learning, incorporating class time where students see and interact with each other on virtual platforms such as Zoom. There students can ask questions and engage in dialogue with their professor and peers. While not anywhere near the experience of in-person learning, opportunities like video discussion sessions are undoubtedly better than an asynchronous online learning system, where students have zero interaction with others and work without a set schedule. From my experience, even when online instruction tried to mimic a traditional classroom, it was not preferable. In fact, due to tech glitches and students talking over each other, it was often frustrating because there were key points that are missed. Given the less-than-impressed reaction to online learning from students, it seems unlikely that strictly remote education will continue in a post-pandemic world. Although technology can be helpful in extenuating circumstances or as a learning supplement, when it attempts to replace human interaction, it is woefully inadequate.
Aryn Ruiz is an academic affairs intern at ACTA and a rising junior at Georgia Gwinnett College.