In spring 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic forced colleges across the country to abruptly shift from in-person to remote learning, as students were kicked off campus in a matter of days and scattered in different locations around the world. What initially seemed to be a temporary adjustment to student life and classes developed into an indefinite transformation for higher education. The bulk of a student’s academic experience—from lectures, to assignments, to exams, to social events—now took place in the confines of a computer screen.
More than a year later, with the rapid rise of vaccine distribution and decline of Covid-19 cases, it seems that a return to normalcy on campus is finally near. In April, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, recommended that students resume full in-person learning by the fall of 2021. An increasing number of colleges across the country, including state institutions like Purdue University and private ones like Brown University, have begun to announce their plans to bring students back this fall.
However, a return to a “normal” academic experience does not necessarily mean that students are welcoming the change with open arms. Students’ perception of higher education as a whole—both in its societal purpose and individual value—has changed since the last time they were on campus conventionally.
April (who uses “they” pronouns and declined to give their last name for privacy reasons), a recent graduate of George Mason University, said they’ve always had an aptitude for learning, and even described themselves as a bit of a teacher’s pet. While attending lectures before the pandemic, they would always make sure to speak at least once and sit near the front. During remote learning, they lost the ability to connect to professors and their peers in a meaningful way. “In one of my classes, I literally never saw my professor’s face, because she would just upload her voice onto a Powerpoint and then once every three or four weeks, there would be a short quiz on the content of the lectures,” April said. “The information I acquired these past semesters could have been acquired with a Google search.”
Over the course of the school year, April’s motivation to truly learn the material, as opposed to just getting assignments done, quickly declined. And although April still believes in the value of education, the challenges and demands that online learning has posed made them skeptical of America’s higher education system. “I put in all this turmoil, money, and stress for what? Just for the piece of paper saying I’d done it,” April said. “The ‘education’ I received last year was honestly comparable to a scam.” While April’s initial post-graduation plan was to try to attain a master’s degree right after college, they now want to stall going back to school for as long as possible.
The burnout from online school, in combination with the slower pace of life in lockdown, forced Serena Jankovic, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, to think about how she was investing her time in college. “After coming out of my fifth hour of Zoom class, I would think to myself, ‘What am I really doing this for?” she said. As a pre-med student, her weekly remote curriculum consisted of regularly scheduled online quizzes and hours of recorded lectures, as well as virtual labs. By the end of each day, Jankovic said she would be extremely drained—both mentally and physically—pushing her to reevaluate what she wanted to do in life.
“I realized I don’t have to speed through my education and go through these years of schooling consecutively,” Jankovic said. “While it’s great to graduate in four years, everyone should be able to go through their education at the pace they feel is right and best for them.” As a result, Jankovic plans on taking a gap semester in the upcoming school year to further explore passions outside of her current pre-med track. She hopes that taking this time will help her figure out how to best utilize her time in college, beyond just feeling the need to approach education linearly.
For other students, remote learning presented an opportunity to better balance school with other responsibilities. As a low-income student at Columbia University, Charlie Blodnieks (who uses “they” pronouns) had to juggle taking on a full academic course load while working in food service to pay for their tuition. Blodnieks completed their final semester at Columbia in an off-campus apartment, and the flexibility of remote learning, as well as the physical distance from campus, allowed them to focus on other parts of their life that they felt were much more urgent than essay deadlines. “Academia always thrives when they make you believe that it is the center of your entire world,” Blodnieks said. “It was never the center of my life, but it was hard to embrace that when I was physically on campus. My degree is important to me, not because I think it carries some greater existential value, but because it opens a lot of doors.”
Over the past year, Blodnieks has been able to do pandemic relief work, mask collection redistribution, as well as work at the National Lawyers Guild while doing classes. Last fall, Blodnieks graduated a semester early; they said that if the remote-learning framework had been available earlier in their undergraduate career, they would’ve had a much easier time being a working student during college. “Online learning is a really important tool to offer everywhere, because it allows for a level of accessibility for disabled students, those with high family commitments, and students with children,” they said. “I think there’s a lot of value in maintaining an option for online education at more institutions, because so many groups were denied accommodations before the pandemic.”
For first-year college students, online education is the only higher education experience they are familiar with—and a return to “normal” brings a fear that the opportunities that remote learning provides might not be accessible anymore. Youssef Hasweh, a first-generation low-income freshman at the University of Chicago, said that remote learning was an eye-opening experience. It showed him it was possible to explore personal interests while being a full-time student. During his first year in college, Hasweh was able to serve as a social media specialist at JUV, work with educational organizations such as Collegeboard and Quizlet, and work a marketing internship at Going Places Careers. “School just doesn’t feel like a priority for me anymore,” Hasweh said. “In high school, I was a very meticulous student who cared about every single assignment and point in class, but I think that it diluted my education, because academics were so overbearing. Now, I actually have a new respect for my degree, because I see it as a tool, rather than something I’m completely depending on to get a job.”
Because of remote learning, Trinity Bland, a junior at San Diego State University, was able to intern at CNN in the last spring semester. She didn’t want to have to graduate any later than planned, so instead of taking a semester off, Bland learned to balance both her journalism internship and classes simultaneously. “You don’t need to be enrolled in a college curriculum to do what you want to do, and I think the pandemic really highlighted that even though education as a whole is valuable, you still want to think about the price you’re paying for it,” Bland said. “I value my skillset a lot more than what I’m learning in school, and my internship and newspaper editorial position equipped me to enter the workforce more than my classes did.”
Whether remote learning undermined students’ faith in the education system or exposed fallacies in the belief in academia’s necessity, a year of online learning has undeniably allowed students to reflect on the possibilities of what higher education could look like and is useful for. While colleges prepare for a return to “normal” this fall, the students they serve have a different outlook on what that means, and on how they plan to approach their studies and utilize their degree. Such considerations are integral to establishing the infrastructures that systems of higher education will implement going into a post-pandemic world. “There isn’t an easy way to go back to school for any student next year,” Hasweh said. “There needs to be a buffer for students to readjust to a new way of learning and coping with the rigor of college.”