“Being back on campus is really, really good in some ways, but in some ways it’s harder.”
This statement, from one of my former students, has stayed with me. It was the first day of fall classes in 2020, and Denison University had just reopened after being closed and moving to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Up to this point, most students had told me how nice it was to be back on campus and how much more they enjoyed having their classes in person.
As a sociologist, I was motivated to dig deeper to understand how returning to campus and in-person learning presented challenges for some students. I knew the conversation about returning to campus had mostly focused on the well-documented issues with virtual learning, such as slow internet connections, difficulties navigating new learning technologies, and difficulties in build friendships in class. Indeed, although some students reported having experienced more difficulty in the context of remote learning, some students actually performed well academically and described positive experiences connecting from home.
I started asking my students about their experiences of what worked well when we went remote. Their answers surprised me. For some students, in-person learning was not always designed to meet their needs. The typical college classroom assumes that most or all students are neurotypical and that the learning space is culturally, emotionally, and cognitively accessible to each student. The truth is that for some students, the in-person class presents challenges that make learning difficult. Here are five ways remote learning has benefited some students.
- Remote classes have allowed students with disabilities (documented and undocumented) to be accommodated in ways that the physical classroom never allowed.
Our courses are designed from an ableist perspective. Students with disabilities must learn to advocate for themselves, which requires both self-awareness and the ability to communicate with their teachers – and possibly the disability support or resource office – in a way that they may not have learned yet. While we have made societal progress in addressing disability rights on campus, student needs, such as extended testing time, visual and auditory learning materials, and expanded classroom doors, often go well beyond the measures at our disposal.
For many, the in-person classroom cannot, and often cannot, accommodate various accommodations, either because of logistics or because the benefit of providing these various supports in the classroom may not overcome the stigma in the mind of the student who ultimately wants to fit in and not be perceived as ‘different’ or ‘abnormal’.
In the virtual classroom, some student needs were met for the first time. For example, students who had hearing needs were able to use assistive and adaptive extras like Zoom’s transcription feature that allowed them to fully participate in real-time lesson learning.
- Virtual learning brought everyone in front of the class, putting students on an equal footing.
In the remote class, there is no back corner of the class. From the teacher’s point of view, each student is equidistant and has the possibility of being at the center of the Hollywood Squares–like the Zoom grid. Introverted students who had grown accustomed to hiding behind extroverts were able to find their voice more easily and safely than in the in-person space.
Meanwhile, students who have leaned on their soft skills to progress in an in-person class have been forced to focus on their academic skills in an online environment. Many students who are good at building relationships with professors and leading class discussions without relying on substantial questioning of material have been challenged in structured activities that required them to provide tangible work products in group or individual work.
At the end of a Zoom class, the chat and video transcripts offer evidence of the work each student has done in the class. And the teacher does not need to rely on memory to assess participation. The remote classroom leaves a tangible record of classroom work in a way that is not possible in the in-person classroom.
- The virtual classroom has made our bodies and the reactions to our bodies less obvious and less impactful.
When we log into a virtual classroom, we cannot clearly see many stigma-carrying elements of identity, such as body size and conformity to gender expectations. Students with taller bodies, who might be aware of how they look and how to navigate sets of desks and chairs designed for shorter students, did not have these experiences in the classroom at home. Gender-nonconforming or transitioning students, who have to deal with the stares and non-supportive reactions of their peers, have been temporarily shielded from this scrutiny. In a classroom where wearing the latest styles is a measure of social worth, students who are financially unable to meet that standard have been able to come to class without worrying about having the right clothes. Not everyone has five shirts to wear from Monday to Friday.
One student told me that the stress she once carried around the classroom disappeared into the virtual space: “It was a relief not to have to worry about what to wear. I’m an athlete and get up to train and eat before 8:00 a.m. Normally, I’m embarrassed to come to class after a practice or practice session. Normally I skipped breakfast to shower and wash my hair before class. The difference in expectations between the sexes has lessened during the pandemic for this student. The pandemic has allowed her, as a student in the virtual classroom, to “be an athlete and not a female athlete”.
- Remote classes felt more inclusive.
Classes at a predominantly white institution may seem alienating to international students or students who are not white. In the remote setting, many students said these differences were less pronounced. English language learners, for example, were able to access real-time language support resources to help them engage more fully in classroom experiences.
The virtual classroom is a spatial equalizer because students cannot sit near those they know and fall into cliques. Group work assignments often stem from seating arrangements chosen by people who are friends or associates, leaving those outside of these informal social networks feeling ostracized. Virtual classroom technologies, like randomly generated breakout rooms, allow us to choose small groups more fairly.
Students may also have felt fewer social barriers in the electronic classroom. Many people have little experience in physical spaces with other people from different backgrounds and are used to seeing black and brown people, such as athletes and artists, mostly in digital spaces such as social media . Many nonverbal gestures that can prevent people from different backgrounds from getting to know each other, such as a prolonged curious look or an expression of unease, are removed in the virtual classroom.
- Students had more control over their health in the learning environment.
Although the pandemic has been the driver of remote learning for most colleges this year, students have also been able to meet other health needs without sacrificing learning. One student wrote, “I’ve had colitis for the past five years. It was the first year that my every thought in class was not, Omg I hope I can do well in this class. Or let me not eat to make sure I’m okay. I was able to manage my disease without the stress that I usually have to deal with.
Students discovered new options available to better meet their mental health needs while maintaining their dignity and privacy. A student told me that he had suffered from anxiety since coming to college. In our virtual classroom, he found ways to address this anxiety that would be impossible in person. He said: ‘I was able to meditate and do my breathing exercises where I lay on the floor and imagine I’m in my favorite range. I did this until the minute before I turned on my camera. It helped a lot. I know I couldn’t do that in class without people looking at me like I was weird.
I didn’t expect the shift to virtual learning to allow me to look at in-person learning in a new way. Of course, I missed the opportunity to see my students in person and expected remote learning to pale in many respects from the classroom experience. But I don’t want to go back to what it was before without taking into account the experiences described by my students. Their stories have made me a more compassionate and empathetic teacher.
As most colleges and universities have resumed in-person classes, now is the time to be strategic and think about what to do with what we have learned and how we can prepare for the next event. that could force us off campus. Can we think of distance learning as a curricular and complementary device, and not as something totally separate from in-person learning? The classroom is not the building but rather the educational experience we desire. We must not be attached to physical space at the expense of learning.