Online learning has generated concern among parents and students all over the country as they worry whether or not they are still receiving a quality education. Elon University, which has hosted in-person classes for the entire 2020-2021 academic year, is not immune to such concern.

At Elon, 432 students were approved for remote learning either for this semester or during Winter Term.  

Online engagement

According to Ann Bullock, the dean of the School of Education, the overall results of students in both online and in-person learning are not that different. The biggest challenge, in Bullock’s opinion, is keeping students engaged online. 

“It takes a bit more to be engaged online because you have to think about how you’re going to do it,” Bullock said. “But, I mean, all I’m learning is the outcomes can be very similar, and the success of students can be very similar.”

While online, it is easier for students to disappear behind their screens. Plus, participating in multiple Zoom classes can lead to Zoom fatigue. Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy define Zoom fatigue in the Harvard Business Review as when people find themselves more exhausted at the end of the day than they used to be now that many people are working online.

The biggest threats to student engagement are distractions. 

Rochelle Ford, the dean of the School of Communications, said students can be distracted not only by their surroundings but also by notifications on their screens. It’s easy to drag another window over Zoom and look through emails or shop online while still portraying the illusion they are paying attention, Ford said.

“When you’re online, it’s very easy to have your emails pop up,” Ford said. “It’s very easy for your Instagram to binge or, you know, go shopping.”

Inequities in education

The digital divide — the gap between students who have access to the internet and those who do not — impacts a student’s ability to participate in remote instruction. Audrey Williams June, the news-data manager for The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote in an email to Elon News Network that she believes the inequality in technology and accessibility is a downside to remote learning. 

“A key disadvantage of online learning is that not every student has access to the technology needed to participate,” June wrote. 

June said the pandemic has “shut some students” out of higher education, particularly low-income and students of underrepresented or minority backgrounds. She wrote that data has shown that the number of Black, Hispanic and Native American students who enrolled in college for the first time dropped significantly this past fall. 

“There’s some concern that the longer these students are out of school, the less likely they will be to ever enroll in college,” June wrote. 

June also believes that the pandemic will not only affect future enrollment in colleges, but also college budgets. 

“Estimates of the financial impact of the pandemic on colleges (loss of revenue and money spent on things like coronavirus testing, quarantine facilities, online learning, etc.) have come in at more than $120 billion,” June said. “More than a few colleges have said the pandemic has triggered the biggest financial crisis in the history of the institution.” 

Elon’s remote students

With remote instruction, students can learn wherever they are and can interact with their teachers even if they are states apart. However, some students, like Elon senior Ashley Billie, have found it challenging to create the sense of community they would feel on campus while learning remotely.

“I find it really hard to have a sense of community being remote,” Billie wrote in an email. “There is a lot of isolation that comes with quarantining, so it gets lonely.”

While Billie, who chose to learn remotely this semester for safety reasons, said she has been struggling with the social aspect of learning remotely, she does appreciate the flexibility that comes with her asynchronous, online classes. 

“I personally love asynchronous learning and going at my own pace, and it’s nice to have that option now,” Billie wrote. 

Even though a lack of community can be a disadvantage to remote learning, the inability to work with classmates can also affect remote students. Sophomore Katie Cox found that her classmates think it’s a “hassle” to work with her. 

“Kids in my classes are way less likely to want to work with me since I’m ‘less accessible’ to them, making it harder to make any new connections and relationships,” wrote Cox. 

Cox, who chose to learn online both for financial reasons and to help with work around her house, found the switch from in-person to remote learning to be “easier than anticipated.”

Online learning also offers students who would otherwise not participate in class a chance to join the discussion through chat features, polls and the ability to “react” with emoticons on their screens. Ford said the chat feature in Zoom allows students who may not normally feel comfortable speaking in class to make a comment or ask a question without even unmuting their microphone. 

Cost of college

While Ford believes there are advantages and disadvantages to online learning, some people’s opinions have changed from the start of the school year to December. New America and Third Way conducted a survey of current college students’ perspectives on online learning. They surveyed 1,008 college students nationwide and 207 high school seniors first in August 2020 and again in December 2020 to see how their views changed. 

A majority of students surveyed trusted their colleges to keep them safe in August, although slightly fewer believed so in December. Even though their trust remained, students began to question if the cost of their higher education is worth it with remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In August, 49% of the college students surveyed agreed that “higher education is not worth the cost to students anymore,” while 51% disagreed. However, only four months later in December, 57% of those students agreed while only 43% disagreed. 

Billie said she does not think college is “anywhere near worth the cost it is now,” whether it be in-person or remote. 

“While I believe online learning is still a legitimate form of learning, I think there should be some sort of tuition discount, or at least waiving the ‘student activities fee’ we get every year,” Billie wrote. 

Cox said she thinks tuition is “still super expensive.” She also said there should be a discount for students who are remote because they are “helping Elon in a big way.”

“We are reducing the number of students on campus, meaning we are helping reduce the number of COVID-19 cases on campus as well as the virus spreadability, using less of their resources such as food, COVID-19 test[s], quarantine rooms, and so on,” Cox wrote. 

Adjusting the curriculum

The switch to online learning is easier for some classes and majors than it is for others. A writing class can move online much easier than a science lab can, as each class needs different equipment and settings.

Senior exercise science and public health major Madeleine August said she believes both of her majors have adapted their courses well to the pandemic while also maintaining as many of the hands-on activities as they safely can. 

While her public health classes were able to easily switch to a hybrid format, the in-person labs for her exercise science classes had a more difficult time. 

“In my ESS major, we have in-person labs that don’t run the same as they did in non-COVID times,” August wrote in an email. 

She said she does, however, believe the department is doing the best they can to adjust to this new normal. August said the science department is working hard to design protocols that allow students to still do exercise testing in a coronavirus-safe manner. 

The School of Communications has had to get creative with some of their courses that require hands-on learning with equipment, according to Ford, because remote students may not have access to the same professional-grade equipment that students on campus have.

“It’s amazing what you can do with a DSLR camera, a low-end one, or what you can do with your iPhone or your [An]droid,” Ford said. “You can still have quality work.”

Ford said one benefit of the shift to online learning is the new, interactive media limited residency master’s degree program. The way the program is structured now allows for people all over the country to complete their master’s degree online at Elon. 

While this graduate program is normally offered in-person, the strength of the remote version showed the school they can offer an online cohort in addition to the in-person cohort from now on. The students would come to Elon for a one-to-two-week intensive program, go home and complete the course, complete a weeklong hands-on project with their class, then come back for graduation. 

The School of Communications has found some success in the few changes that came with online learning. The School of Education, on the other hand, has had to adjust their curriculum to accommodate the switch.

Dean Bullock also believes preparing students to possibly teach online for the foreseeable future is also important. 

“The school of education has a different level of responsibility, because we’re preparing students that are going to go out and are currently now teaching in virtual environments,” said Bullock.

June said that she believes this “new normal” of online education is “here to stay.”

“It’s not clear what the ‘new normal’ will be for higher education once the pandemic is behind us, but whatever it is will include some form of teaching online,” June said.