Zoomed Out: Is Distance Learning Killing College?

Zoomed Out: Is Distance Learning Killing College? (Photo: Filippo Bacci/Getty Images)

Oakland, CAWhen Tomás Mier found out his in-person college courses would switch to distance learning because of the coronavirus outbreak, he was immediately anxious about how it might affect his final semester.

Mier, who is double-majoring in journalism and Latino studies at the University of Southern California, worried that without internet access at his parents' Santa Clara, California home, he would fall behind. Initially, he tried logging into Zoom using a nearby uncle’s public hotspot. Because of the low quality, Mier couldn’t turn on his video like the rest of his classmates.

“I know that there are so many kids in that situation, and it’s really tough,” he said. “I’ve spent my last four years [at U.S.C.] and it just felt like it was cut short so abruptly without giving us any real closure. It caused a lot of confusion with the whole graduation thing, too. That’s just something that so many people look forward to in their lives."

Things began looking up when Mier, a first-generation college student, was able to access a program from Comcast that provides internet to low-income families. 

“Our final was reduced by half of the workload, so it’s nice to hear that our professors are really taking into consideration that the situation is tough for a lot of us.”

If he were still in Los Angeles, Mier would be preparing for commencement. Instead, he’s been taking socially-distanced walks with his parents and awaiting U.S.C.’s virtual graduation on May 15.  

“It’s over 20 years of sacrifice for my family,” Mier said. “Graduation was the culmination of all of their hard work and sacrifice for me to have a future in this country.”

Roughly 21.3 million Americans lack access to broadband internet, according to data released last year by the Federal Communications Commission. Students across U.S. campuses don't own computers and normally rely on campus labs and libraries to complete schoolwork. 

“I feel like, especially now, there are a lot of people who are very challenged,” said Professor Mary Janke, who teaches abnormal psychology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. One of her students lives in an apartment with five other family members and wrote Janke worried that she wouldn’t be able to take the exam because she only has limited time to use the household computer. 

“Different family situations, not everyone wants to be home with their family or are in environments that are just not conducive to studying,” Janke said. 

Before the COVID-19 breakout, 35% of enrolled college students had taken an online course. But American academia is undergoing an unprecedented shift, and students are wondering how long the switch to online learning will last.

Things will likely look very different for the fall semester than they would in a normal year. Schools are planning for a variety of scenarios, including in-person options, remote learning or a mix of the two. Many administrators are still trying to finalize plans, with announcements expected in June or July. 

The switch to online learning is frustrating for art students like Jacob Sarasohn, a second-year student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

“A lot of what we are paying for is facility access,” Sarasohn said. “Use ceramics as an example. How can you teach technical ceramics if you don’t have the kiln or the wheel? Even a graphic design class. One of our biggest learning experiences is institutional critique and that fundamentally can’t happen now.”

Jacob Sarasohn, a sophomore at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, takes his photography class over a Zoom video call in Berkeley, CA.
(Photo courtesy Jacob Sarasohn)

Sarasohn is anxious about what the fall semester might — or might not —look like.

“I like to have a plan in place,” Sarasohn said. “And it’s definitely weird. This is a prime example of COVID-19 affecting our ability to make choices. As we’re young adults, learning in the world is essential because we’ve moved from a place of not being able to make choices because you live with your parents to getting a lot more choices living on your own." 

Of course, students aren’t the only ones experiencing the fallout of being forced off-campus. Janke says that while students are still engaging with class content, she misses the face-to-face interaction that she has with students, which is more meaningful when they share personal anecdotes that relate to the class topics. 

“The hardest part for me and I think my students is that we have so much interaction as a norm. This sort of reduces it,” Janke said. “I feel like in a lot of cases ... students are like ‘Well I have a brother with autism,' or 'I have a sister with A.D.H.D.' or 'I have an uncle with schizophrenia,’ so that doesn’t really translate to someone sharing that necessarily on a virtual class.”

There’s also the social aspect of college — perhaps the defining part for many students — that is lost in the shift to online.

U.C.L.A. student Denita Kiya is trying to figure out how she’s going to make her group project work over video conferencing in her Santa Monica home. Zoom has a feature that allows students to break out into smaller groups, but Kiya, who is a junior studying English and philosophy, says it’s a strange adjustment.

“Normally you’d be turning your desks and sitting face-to-face and talking and awkward silences,” she said. “It’s so hard not to be on my phone during class cause it’s right there ... It’s just hard to focus. It’s not the same.”

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