After experiencing a year and a half of online learning, three college students give their thoughts on the good, the bad, and the ugly of it.
(Pictured from Left to Right: Mari, Ashley, and Kojo)
Around the Spring semester of 2020, college students across the United States began to move off campus as a result of the CDC identifying the first case of COVID-19 in the United States on January 21, 2020. No one knew quite how to feel and for students specifically, there were more questions than answers. Was COVID-19 that serious? How long was this going to last? As more and more universities began to prepare for what would end up becoming a global pandemic, the uncertainty only grew. In many cases, professors and students only had the duration of spring break (often only a week or two) to prepare for a transition to online learning.
No one was prepared for it. Taking college classes online, across the board, seemed to be challenging for both parties. From the very beginning, students and professors felt unmotivated and unorganized. Meeting on Zoom for many felt unengaging, as any interaction was only available by the lens of a laptop camera and a microphone. Even then, most of the time both were left turned off. Any combination of internet problems, living in noisy homes, and other obligations like jobs constantly caused online learning to be just that much more difficult. “Zoom University,” as many college students coined the phenomena of learning via Zoom, became an everyday reality.
Now with a steady rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, many colleges have cautiously announced plans to reopen for the fall semester of 2021. With one and a half years of online learning behind them, I asked three college students for their thoughts on it. I conducted individual interviews over FaceTime and Discord and asked them 10 questions each regarding their experiences. Mari, Ashley, and Kojo each had their own complex set of experiences, emotions, and thoughts regarding how online learning has impacted them.
First, please introduce yourself: name, the university you go to, your year, your major, and any other relevant information you think is worth mentioning.
Mari: She goes to Montclair State University and thinks she’s a junior. Mari also states that she is an Animation and Illustration Major (Concentration in Animation), an honors student, is part of two Asian-Am Organizations, and lived on campus during freshman year. She has had online schooling since, but after reopening she will be commuting.
Ashley: She goes to Rowan University and is a “rising Junior.” Ashley states that she is a Communications Studies Major, an honors student, and part of the Communications Club. She stayed online for the entirety of the 2020-2021 school year but dormed during the 2019-2020 school year until she was sent home.
Kojo: He went to Rutgers for a semester, then transferred and graduated from BCC (Bergen Community College) after four semesters, before finally transferring into NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology) for Fall 2021. He is currently a junior, a Computer Engineering Major, and was in Honors College at BCC for two semesters. Unlike the other two, he has commuted all of his college career (prior to online learning).
Now, how would you say you personally adjusted to online learning?
Mari: When I asked this question, Mari made a face. She stated that “online classes felt like a free-for-all for both students and professors.” Accessibility was also difficult as not everyone had access to the computer programs and/or studio tools they ordinarily had on campus. As an example, she says that her final project was hard to do because she didn’t have access to an art studio and all of the tools within it. She notes that, “It was just kinda rough” because lots of people lost motivation because online learning/lectures were not engaging and thus people either gave up or weren’t taking it seriously.
Ashley: During Ashley’s Fall 2020 semester, all of her classes were asynchronous (“Everything you do for the class is self-paced including lectures, readings, discussion posts, quizzes and homework. All of that is within a weekly module”). Because of this, Ashley felt that she ended up working a lot more than she would in a traditional college setting: “I’d be working from nine to six thirty, everyday, seven days a week on just schoolwork.” As for Spring 2021, all of her classes were synchronous and on Zoom, and she found herself more nervous because people could hear her speak: “It’s different in a classroom setting; not everyone is listening all the time but on Zoom everyone is focused on what’s happening on their computer screen so everyone is most likely listening to you when you speak. For someone so nervous, I don’t know why I turned my camera on so often.”
Kojo: In the beginning, he was on top of it during the first semester. But as it went on, he checked notifications less and less. Kojo’s first semester overall grade didn’t change too much; second semester grades saw a dip. He recalled the time he mistakenly uploaded the wrong file to a Midterm Test submission and ended up receiving a 22% and his professor would not let him resubmit. He finished answering by saying, “For me, it was more or less doing homework. All the time.” When I said it was homework in the truest sense, Kojo laughed and said, “It’s Homeschool.”
What, if anything, did you like or grow to appreciate about online learning? Why?
Mari: She kind of liked how the classes were technically shorter despite them feeling like a bog while in them, and it allowed her to spend more time with her immediate family in her house. But Mari did have mixed feelings on the ease of access of classes. She liked how it was easy to get to class but also liked having a routine where she’d wake up, get ready, and go to class; she felt like she had “no stability” because of the blending of home life and school life.
Ashley: She also liked how she was able to spend more time with her family, even though there were times where she felt like they were stuck together. Ashley also notes that she started to feel really comfortable learning at home and was thriving more in this environment. She said that it was probably because of the lack of distractions because there was little to no social interactions: “I don’t have to deal with people,” she said jokingly.
Kojo: Interestingly, he said that “it was, generally, easier to hang out with other people” because “it was easier to relate to them because I was in a familiar digital space.” He also notes that it was great just not having to go anywhere. “It was the best thing. It was nice being able to have time to speak with my family.”
What did you dislike about online learning? Why?
Mari: She noted that she never felt like she was really in the “school zone” and as a result, her mental health declined because of the lack of structure and lack of separation of work and home. (She gives a disclaimer that what she was about to say is pretentious.) Mari also notes that it was never about the difficulty of the classes but it was more about the motivation to get tasks and assignments done. It also bothered her when professors weren’t understanding of people's situations: “A little bit of leniency would be nice.” On the flip side, she also was annoyed and bothered by fellow students who didn’t take the classes seriously because some professors were genuinely trying to make the adjustment easier for students, but some of them just didn’t care to put in the effort.
Ashley: She primarily missed the experience of being able to walk around campus, be independent (“the way someone our age should become”) and all that comes with that. She also missed bonding with her classmates and interacting with her professor(s) in person. Ashley recalled one specific instance during the fall semester of 2020 in which she struggled with one class in particular and it was really difficult to find help because it was asynchronous and contacting the professor was hard because of it. As for Spring 2021, she said that, “I hated whenever my professor’s WiFi went out! Everyone just sat in the class just waiting for them to come back and sometimes they never did,” she says in between laughing. “One time a professor asked me if I could hear him and then he froze and got kicked out of the Zoom room.”
Kojo: He definitely disliked how incompetent with technology some of his professors were online. According to him, some of them used MS Paint. One of his professors specifically repeatedly had technical issues with her WiFi, laptop, etc., and “it definitely detracted from the class.” The irony was, she was a Computer Science professor. He also notes that, “When I’m in a classroom setting, it’s so much easier to listen to the teacher, look at the board, not get distracted and just be engaged” and, “When I’m home, you know… my Steam account is right there. My Switch…. is right there. Hell, even my phone is right there.” It took a lot of concentration to come out with good grades.
How did online learning impact your everyday life and daily routines? Did you have to adjust?
Mari: She said she struggled to find routine. This became doubly more difficult when her parents got COVID-19 within a week of each other and then all of a sudden, she had to also take care of her parents because her two brothers were working. She described this as, “A month and a half of pure fear” and states that the feeling is best summed up in this quote from A Series of Unfortunate Events movie: “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels; and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”
Ashley: In the beginning, she ate a lot and didn’t exercise because she felt so lazy. During fall semester, Ashley would wake up at 8:30 AM, eat breakfast, and then get ready for class. “I just sat in front of the computer the whole day and didn’t get up much at all, except to get snacks.” “Me focusing on all of my classes was my way of coping with being stuck inside. If I made myself busy, then it made the time go by faster.” She also says she was watching 4K dramas when she wasn’t studying to distract herself. But by spring semester, she states that she realized that she “needed to adopt healthier habits so I started running and eating better” as well as keeping an agenda next to her to write down homework, test dates, project dates, etc. so she could keep herself on track and turn things on time.
Kojo: His routine completely changed from the one he had pre-pandemic. Rather than commute, do most of his homework in between classes, and go home to relax and unwind, he had to learn to adjust. A normal day involved Kojo getting up at 7 AM, eating breakfast and having some tea, checking emails and making sure nothing was due that day, and then watching anime and playing video games. Realistically, he stated it was more “stop and go” because he would do his homework (a lot of coding, according to him) and then take hours to do the above activities.
How has this made you feel about your college experience? Do you feel like it would be the same if you were in-person? Has online learning changed how you feel about college?
Mari: She begins by saying she’s never believed in the typical “college experience” and that while this isn’t how she expected her college experience to go, Mari still has a year to be on-campus. But when I brought up how some universities charged full tuition for online learning during a pandemic, she stated that: “Even as an art major, I didn’t have to go to college to succeed even though it would have helped. But… I’m lucky enough to have scholarships; but if I didn’t have my scholarships I might have seriously considered dropping out of college.” She finished by stating that, “College is a scam, let that be known.”
Ashley: “I feel like it [her college experience] has been cut way too short because I can only remember my freshman year and nothing after that because everything else [college] was at home.”Ashley also feels that she missed out on meeting new people and making new friends because she had only one semester to do that and, “I wasted it because I never went out that first semester“ and that she has to “try harder with everything I do in college from now on.” She does feel college would have been far more interesting if they were in-person: “I do wonder what it would be like if I was on campus and experiencing things the proper way.” At first there was a sense of grief for the loss of that possibility, but now she’s grown to accept it. Ashley finished answering by saying, “Now that I’ve experienced it [Zoom University], I never want to do it again. As much as I got really good grades, it’s not something I want to experience again.”
Kojo: “I’ve never been one for the typical college experience. I definitely feel like I have a different college experience but I wouldn’t say it's the worst. It’s my college experience after all.” However, he also notes that, “Online learning has taught me colleges don't really care about what you know, they care about how many credits you have. They don’t actually care whether or not I actually know the stuff. They just care if I have the grades or credits.” Thus, he “realized it’s up to me to keep my academic integrity.” He finished by also stating that, “The whole point of going to college includes the amenities, the social aspect of being well-connected with professors and students and a lot of it is lost when you’re going to school online. That whole experience is what you’re paying for. It’s like if you bought brand-name cereal and even if the store-bought cereal is exactly the same, you pay more for no reason; we all more or less got the same college experience during the pandemic. That’s the definition of a scam if you ask me.”
Has going through two years of Zoom University impacted you in any way? Have you grown as a person/student, become more thankful for the experience of just going to class in-person, etc.?
Mari: “I’m not gonna lie, it made me wanna be more active and not in a fitness way. Now I have a job and it changed the way I see my family, my parents specifically. Because even after getting COVID, they were still paying for my college and helping me out. “I’ve definitely grown as a person and as a student… but not in the way I would’ve on campus.” Being in Zoom University and having to switch to in-home learning forced her to take responsibility in a way that she wouldn’t have if she was on campus. “If I wanted something to be done, I had to do it myself.” Her computer broke and she had to deal with it; if the website was down, she had to find a workaround. Mari couldn’t rely on her professors and guidance as much via email because of it.
Ashley:“It’s allowed me to grow more as a human being. Not only because I spent a lot of time by myself, but this experience itself allowed me to be more mindful and grateful for the experiences I did have. I think I’m more patient now because I just have to be. Because of online classes and being home all the time.” She also states that, “I think I’ve become more unapologetically myself. I shouldn’t pretend to be someone I’m not and just accept myself as I am. As long as I have genuine people around me that bring out the best in me, that’s all that matters. Even if it’s not in person, knowing I have that support is what matters.”
Kojo: Interestingly enough, he says, “No and that’s kind of a bad thing, right? I’m sure there’s some small changes in my habits and things like that but I think I might have missed out on the growth that a traditional college experience could offer me. Going through this made me a bit more melancholy about getting the typical college experience.” He notes that he feels the odd grief of what could have been: “FOMO… but I actually did miss out” because, “I didn’t have the choice whether or not to experience it.” Kojo believes that in comparison to the growth that could have been fostered through a traditional college experience, the small change he experienced during two years of online learning does not compare. But he does not feel that his college experience was wasted. “I would do it again. But…. that doesn’t mean I kinda sorta wish this didn’t happen.”
Finally, if you had to give one piece of advice to yourself a year and a half ago, who was about to go through Zoom University, what would you say?
Mari: “I would just say really focus on your mental [health]... understand the importance of working hard but not killing yourself over it. (She notes that she feels like a hypocrite as she says it). Missing a deadline is not the end of the world: you’re still a college student and you’re gonna graduate. She also adds that, “I feel like I owe my younger self that feeling of success, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of my present self’s mental health.”
Ashley: “Get out of your dorm room! You need to get out of your dorm room, girl. You need to talk to more than just the four friends you have.” (She proceeds to count her friends on her fingers). Times are gonna get hard but don’t lose your true self. Just as the BTS song told you, life goes on and things will get better even if things don’t seem like it right now.”
Kojo: “F*cking check your emails!” He notes a lot of his issues would have been fixed if he checked his emails.
Lance Serafica is an undergraduate at Rowan University who is currently pursuing a BA in English, a minor in Creative Writing, and a minor in Strategic Communications. Lance is a writer for ink. He enjoys writing everything from personal essays to reviews of popular media, but has a particular soft spot for analyzing diverse YA literature. When not writing, Lance can be found with his nose buried in a book or obsessively listening to Taylor Swift’s extensive discography. You can find more of his opinions on books on his Goodreads page.