Since March 2020, we have taken most, if not all, of our classes online. For many, this has been an unpleasant experience. Professors fumbling with technology, pets and younger siblings distracting us, randomly getting disconnected from Zoom — the list goes on.
Depending on how the pandemic progresses, it’s possible that we are in for another semester of online learning — a scenario no one is looking forward to.
I have a sneaking suspicion that we may be looking at online classes the wrong way. There are certain advantages online learning has over in-person learning that are often dismissed. It may even be the case that for certain types of classes, namely large lectures, online learning is better than in-person learning.
I don’t think online learning is necessarily better for all types of classes, however. Labs have to be in-person for obvious reasons. Help sessions for classes that involve math are much more effective in-person because so it’s much easier to work on equations together when you have a whiteboard in front of you. Smaller seminar-based classes may be better in-person, but this would have to be evaluated on a class-by-class basis. Ultimately, the arguments I make here apply to large lecture-based classes.
A common complaint about online classes is that they are hard to follow. According to John Villasenor, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “a good lecture or seminar has its foundation in words but gains its texture and flow from countless other subtle cues and interactions in the classroom.” In online classes, professors have a hard time knowing when their students are confused and whether they should explain something in more detail.
However, this has always been the case for large lecture-based classes. Take for example a class with hundreds of students: Organic Chemistry. In a class of this size, it is not possible for a professor to pick up on the “subtle cues and interactions” of all 300 students and shape their lecture accordingly. There is no way to personalize a lecture-based class like Organic Chemistry. If you ever fall behind on your notes, tough luck, because the professor is not going to go back a slide so one person can catch up. If you have a question, chances are the professor is not going to see you raise your hand.
Online classes may actually be easier to follow. Everyone has a front-row seat on Zoom. When you click the “raise hand” function, the professor will always see it, meaning that you are much more likely to have your question answered. Moreover, everyone will be able to hear your question, which is not always the case in a lecture hall. Online classes actually help facilitate interactions between a professor and their students.
Additionally, online classes are usually recorded at a much higher quality than in-person classes. The microphone quality is better, there is no distracting background chatter and — most importantly — professors are far less likely to forget to click the record button. What this means is that with online classes, you can almost always refer to the recording in case you missed something, which can’t be said of in-person classes.
Another common complaint about online classes is that they are less engaging than in-person classes. This seems like a valid point. I think we’ve all, at some point during an online class, opened Facebook or Reddit to escape the tedium of a professor droning on. However, were in-person classes that engaging in the first place? In large lectures, nearly everyone had a laptop or tablet out. Most people, at some point during class, used their devices to text their friends or browse the web. Not much has changed in terms of our level of engagement. Large lecture-based classes are just as engaging online as they are in-person — which is to say, not very engaging at all.
The biggest advantage of online classes has to do with the logistics of attending class. For an in-person class, you have to shower, brush your teeth, comb your hair and do whatever else you have to do to look presentable. For an online class, all you have to do is roll out of bed, turn on your computer, click on a Zoom link and voila! You don’t even have to put on pants. Norms for personal appearance on Zoom are less strict than those for in-person interactions, which can help save a lot of time.
Time is also saved by the fact that for online classes, you don’t have to walk to class. Although the time spent walking to class is not a huge deal for us, as we have a small campus, think about your friends at big state schools. I have friends at the University of Maryland who have to walk 45 minutes to get from their apartment on one side of campus to class on the other side. If classes were online, they could use that time to catch some extra z’s or cram for an exam.
Why, then, do we dislike online classes so much? Our antipathy is misdirected. It’s not online classes that are driving us crazy but rather the limitations imposed on us by the pandemic. The fact that we can’t leave our apartment. The fact that we can’t work out at the gym. The fact that we can’t have dinner with friends. All of this sucks, and it’s affecting our mental health. But online classes are not to blame. They just happen to be one of the most visible symbols of the pandemic onto which we are projecting our unhappiness.
Imagine that everything is back to normal. Club meetings are in person, the gym is open, you can hang out with your friends and so on. Everything except that we have most of our classes on Zoom. Would the hate for online classes persist? I don’t think it would.
Jerry Wu is a senior from Potomac, Md. studying Molecular and Cellular Biology.