Among teachers and students, there’s a widespread understanding that online courses are a poor substitute for the quintessential education experience. They remove the social aspect of schooling, and make the collaboration and group-work aspects of scholarship nearly impossible. Broadly, those concerns have merit; in 2018, the New York Times reported that on average, students in digital classes tended to perform worse than those who studied directly with a teacher.
But since the country entered its unprecedented distance learning experiment this spring, there’s been a growing contingent of students who’ve found themselves actually enjoying their cyberspace syllabus more than the physical version. “I’m an introvert who deals with a lot of social anxiety,” said Maude, a 20-year-old special care counseling student in Quebec who has been taking remote classes since March and into the new school year. “In an online classroom, I don’t have to be around people or feel apprehensive about asking the teacher questions. Instead, I’m as calm as I can be, in my safe space at home.”
While teachers, parents, and experts have voiced concerns over how digital school will impact students’ development, many have pointed out that some students are thriving in the new environment. “I can’t say enough about how this closure has changed my entire approach to teaching because I see how it has been an amazing respite for so many students,” said Rosie Reid, California’s 2019 Teacher of the Year, in an interview with Edutopia.
There’s no one reason why remote learning — which ranges from more hands-on instruction to hands-off assignments depending on the school — fits better for some students more than others. Some enjoy how loose and untethered an online education is. Others have struggled for years with the social anxiety inherent in a classroom, and are finally at peace doing schoolwork in the safety of their bedroom. Nobody fears being late for class anymore. One student told me this extended break from campus has revealed that many of his general education responsibilities aren’t substantial, and that maybe they’d be better off with classes two or three times a week.
I spoke to four students who expressed the surprising joys of digital schooling. These students, at least, are not necessarily thrilled about going back to in-person classes when the pandemic finally allows them to do so.
“I have ADHD, and I’ve been able to focus on my schoolwork so much better now”
Jacob, 14, Minnesota
Like many students around the country, I first heard my school would be closing down in March after they extended our spring break for two weeks. That was back in my spring semester, when I was in middle school, and the administration restarted the year by sending over material on Schoology [virtual classroom software]. We just did our work at home.
For this year, which is my first year of high school, I’ve had a lot more meetings over Zoom alongside the Schoology work. I have to check in every day, things like that. Last year, all I had to do was fill out an attendance sheet of what we did on a school day and send it into the teacher. It’s a lot more robust now. These days, I can expect to talk to my teachers every day.
I didn’t expect to enjoy online classes as much as I have. At first, I was pretty frustrated. It felt like a raw deal to have to do schoolwork while also not being able to see my friends every day. The best part, by far, is that I typically finish all of my work by around 10 in the morning, rather than 3 in the afternoon. Like, I’ll wake up at 7:30 and be done with school before the morning is over. When it started, both my parents and I were wondering if we were screwing up. Like, “Are we missing something here?” But no, that’s just kinda how it works when you’re out of a classroom.
I have ADHD, and I’ve been able to focus on my schoolwork so much better now that there’s not a constant commotion around me. That’s one of the reasons I think I’ve been able to get the work done so much faster. I don’t have to worry about people talking or other background noise. One of the things that has always bothered me is the buzzing from the fluorescent lights. That’s been eliminated entirely. I’ve also noticed that my grades have improved since pivoting to distance learning, though I’m not sure if that’s because they’ve been giving us less work or that I’ve just been able to concentrate better.
My friends and I have been talking about some of the efficiency issues in school. Even before the pandemic, I tended to get my work done fairly quickly, so Covid has only made me question the schedule more. It’s bittersweet for my friends and I; we finish school early, but we still don’t get to hang out with each other. If we could do both, that’d be ideal.
“In physical classes, I spent so much of my energy trying to calm down”
Maude, 20, Quebec
In March, all of our classes went online, and by the summer it became clear that I was going to be headed to school digitally for the foreseeable future. I didn’t have many details beyond that. We just kind of stood pat until July, when all the details were confirmed. I’m 20 years old and study special care counseling in Quebec, and for now, I’m doing all my classwork and studies from home.
I understand that there are students out there who probably have a difficult time focusing on their academics from their bedroom. But if I’m being honest, I was thrilled when I heard we’d be pivoting to a purely digital environment. I’m an introvert who deals with a lot of social anxiety, but in an online classroom, I don’t have to be around people or feel apprehensive about speaking up. I struggle to raise my hand in class, and usually I end up waiting until the end of a session to get my three to four questions I had. Now, I can just ask whenever I want in online chat. I’m as calm as I can be, in my safe space at home.
These days, I wake up around 8 am and plan a to-do list. After that, I jump right into my homework and take a short break for a couple of minutes every hour and a half. We’re sent PowerPoint presentations and short videos to simulate all the lessons. I don’t have to worry about getting to all of my classes on time, and because of that, I’m much more efficient. I’ve become proactive in my studies. I don’t procrastinate nearly as much, and as a whole, I find myself far more on top of things from a logistical perspective. In physical classes, I spent so much of my energy trying to calm down.
There are some downsides, though. This was my last semester of classes for my program, so it’s sad to not be around my incredible teachers from that program. School is supposed to be spent surrounded by people passionate about the same things you are, so you can all develop your skills together. We won’t be able to enjoy that in the way we should. Also, this semester has actually cost me more money than my previous ones. My tuition goes to the libraries and cafes on campus that we can’t use right now. That doesn’t seem particularly fair.
But overall, I really hope colleges evaluate some of the advantages of online classes in the future. I’m going to miss them when they’re gone. They’re not perfect for every curriculum, but personally, I’ve found them to be very useful.
“The classroom feels outdated”
Gideon, 17, Florida
I was at the tail end of spring break, and my district extended that break for a week once Covid hit. Things kind of progressed from there, and we moved to a fully online system that semester. It was a mix of emotions for me. I’m in a position of privilege. I have access to the resources to get online and all that stuff. There are people in my community who are doing a lot worse than me, and school is an escape for them. It’s a weird dynamic.
But despite that, I’ve really enjoyed doing school virtually. My high school is divided into a bunch of different academies, and I study Photoshop and Premiere Pro. So most of the time I don’t have live meetings. I just needed to register my attendance and then I can do whatever I want. The idea is that I’ll spend those hours working on my various different portfolios, but effectively, they’re allowing us total free time. I’ve never been the type to cut class, but it’s crazy that we’ve been afforded that opportunity. It feels like I’m still on summer break. I barely have any academic meetings now.
I guess, in a weird way, this pandemic intersected with the perfect time in my academic career. As a senior, I’ve knocked out most of my general studies, so all I’ve got left are the digital art ventures I would be doing anyway. It feels like after Covid, high schools around the country are going to revert right back into the five-days-a-week model. That seems shortsighted to me.
All of this has really made me reconsider if in-person classes are that useful for students like me. Even before Covid, I did the vast majority of my creative work at home. I think I focus best when I’m in my room, and within my specialized curriculum, I’ve come to believe that there’s a huge amount of filler in the education system. I homed in on Photoshop and Premiere Pro since I was a freshman, and most of my other general education courses seemed unnecessary. Why am I taking an AP biology class when I could be taking more communications classes? It doesn’t make much sense to me. The classroom feels outdated. The only people using the quadratic formula are high school students and high school teachers. It doesn’t bleed over into real life.
“The constant stress of where I’m supposed to be, and when I’m supposed to be there, is all gone now”
Nick, 26, North Carolina
I’ve been doing online classes at Duke for about half a semester cumulatively. At the beginning, I was pretty bummed out about it. Obviously, I didn’t want to go to in-person classes during a pandemic. I’m immunocompromised, so I was concerned about my safety. But also, graduate school is a lot of money. It’s probably overpriced to begin with, and that value has certainly changed without the in-person community. There was nothing I could do about that. Duke is a huge institution, and I’m just me.
But surprisingly, the longer I’ve done these online classes, the more I’ve valued them. I work 25 hours a week in public policy, so my schedule was already pretty squeezed. It was really difficult to go from class to my job, then back to class in a single day. It was a balancing act for me and so many other grad students. All of that bedlam, the constant stress of where I’m supposed to be, and when I’m supposed to be there, is all gone now. There’s more opportunity, when I’m between classes, to just chill out and be a human, without worrying about my next pit stop.
It’s funny, this pandemic has been an extremely stressful time for everyone. But at the same time, at least I don’t need to worry about being late for lecture. It’s the little things, right?
I think if I’m being honest with myself, I’m going to miss these online classes when they’re gone. I’m not going to miss our current moment, obviously, or miss grappling with the real value of my current experience. But I will miss the way I was able to spend my time, and how I feel right now. It’s the best it can be right now, and I’m enjoying it more than I thought I would.