The University of Phoenix became the first institution to launch a fully online collegiate institution that offered both bachelors and master’s degrees in 1989. According to the United States Department of Education, 15.7% of American postsecondary students took exclusively distance education courses in 2017. Distance learning is not a new concept.
However, as a Colorado College student, I never chose distance learning. Like millions of American students, professors, and teachers, compulsory distance learning chose me when it was borne out of the coronavirus epidemic. Because of my lack of choice in the matter as well as my impulse to complain about it, I’ve been trying to seek the pros of this unexpected situation since I logged into my first class on March 30th.
I observed the first benefit of taking classes online before my first class had even started. I had woken up late, just three minutes before I was supposed to log in to my class Zoom session, and I panicked briefly before quickly realizing that waking up late on the first day of class is no longer the usual hassle. I tied my hair into a knot, sat up in bed, and logged on perfectly on time. Wow! What a concept!
In all seriousness, I have observed more meaningful distance learning benefits. Because I am an English major, my classes often contend with emotionally-charged subject matters like racism, trauma, abuse, sexism, homophobia, and impoverishment. As a result, some classes can become tense, uncomfortable, and/or overwhelming for some students. While taking an online class, students can discreetly manage their emotions off-camera if necessary.
In my experience, the option that online classes give to listen without being watched can increase students’ comfort and therefore foster more dynamic, effective conversations. Online classes allow students to remain in a comforting space while discussing difficult topics, whereas in-person classes require students to manage their emotions because students are locked into a physical space with their peers. I think there were moments when I spoke up in my last class because I was able to compose myself off-camera, moments when I would not have spoken up in person.
My classmates, my professor, and I are practicing social distancing, so we are more likely to see email, text message, Canvas, and GroupMe notifications. It has been resultingly easier to contact my professor or a classmate if I need to discuss anything class-related.
All that said, I’m not going to pretend like I think this is the ideal situation for me. Many of the qualities of Colorado College that drew me to the school are impossible to translate to online learning. I thrive off physically being in my small classes, seeing my friends around campus, and meeting professors for coffee or for a meal at their house with my classmates. However, I recognize that social distancing and distance learning have to be the reality for everyone right now, and I do not think that complaining about a situation over which no one has control is productive. For now, all we can do is try our best to adapt to the circumstances and wait for normalcy’s return.