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As College Students Head Back to Class, Some Say Benefits of Online Learning Should Not Be Forgotten

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In March 2020, college students across the country were forced to transition to remote learning because of the coronavirus pandemic. As the pandemic persisted, millions of students continued learning remotely during the 2020-2021 school year

Throughout this transition, surveys suggested strong negative feelings about learning online among students. 

According to a July 2020 survey of 13,606 college students in the United States by study guide platform OneClass, more than 93% of U.S. students believed that if classes are fully held online, tuition should be lowered. Plus, 75% of those surveyed said they are unhappy with the quality of online classes and 35% had considered withdrawing from school.

And a Nov. 2020 survey of 3,500 U.S. college students by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators found that staying engaged while learning online was the biggest concern for students — even more than catching Covid-19 or getting a job after graduation. 

But as vaccines buoy hopes of returning to traditional in-person learning, some are calling attention to the benefits of learning online that should not be left behind. 

"There is this desire to continue some sort of online learning," says Jenny Berg, director of public affairs for market research firm Ipsos. "Students want to get back on campus, but they are seeing the benefit of this type of learning."

According to Sallie Mae's recent How America Pays for College report, conducted by Ipsos, 75% of college students and their families prefer to have in person-only or hybrid learning next semester, citing difficulty concentrating and difficulty collaborating with peers among their top critiques of online learning.  

However, "Black students really seem to enjoy and capitalize on the online learning experience," says Berg, citing findings that 68% of Black respondents and 60% of Hispanic respondents feel positive about online learning. 

Seventy percent of Black students and 54% of Hispanic students say they were equally able to learn new material online and in-person, compared with 46% of White students. 

Plus, some students have shared that remote learning helped them avoid racism and microaggressions in class

Joy Ma is a rising sophomore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She began college remotely in the fall 2020 and her classes were held "asynchronously," meaning they were recorded and not held live.

"My first semester, honestly, felt weird because it was all asynchronous and I wasn't learning anything new because it was mostly review from high school," says Ma, who is Asian American. "It felt like my tuition wasn't really worth it. And in general, it felt like I wasn't part of the community, especially because I had just started college — like I wasn't cared about that much." 

During her second semester, Ma had the chance to live in the dorms and take one recitation in person. "It was amazing, the first time being in a classroom," she says. "I felt like I learned so much through that class and it was just fun to walk with my classmates to class."

Ma says the experience opened her eyes to opportunities of hybrid learning. 

"I would love it if MIT did a combination [of in-person and online learning]. Because why would you go back? A lot of times, having classes recorded is way more convenient," she says. "I'm optimistic about next year, but I'm kind of nervous that after everything is allowed to be in-person schools will just get rid of everything that worked well virtually, and go back to the old-fashioned way of learning."

Muriel Doll, a rising sophomore at Harvard, says that after a year of synchronous (meaning live) online classes, she is excited for a "normal" college year learning in person. She says while online learning allowed her some flexibility and the chance to freely fidget in class, online lectures could become arduous and ultimately lead to "Zoom fatigue." 

Still, she says she is not surprised that students of color may have reservations about returning to class. 

"It kind of slipped my mind that I was attending a predominantly white institution this year because I could pick who was on my Zoom screen," says Doll, who is Black. "Most of my friends are people who I can relate to, are people of color, so those were the people who I primarily saw on-campus. We've been joking, 'Oh, no, it's really gonna hit that we're like, one out of two black people in a classroom of 50 next year because we'll be actually sitting there in the room.'"

"It'll just be really obvious that we're the minority again.'"

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