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Lessons Learned From a Year of Online Classes

by Stephen Buckley, Product Specialist

I just completed my first year as a college student, and though I was on campus the entire time, all of my classes were online. My school has stated intentions of returning to fully in-person classes in the fall of next year, but we all know that the future is far from certain. Whatever ends up happening, I wanted to share some lessons that I learned taking online courses that should be carried on into the future.

Lesson #1: Test Understanding, Not Memorization

From my experience, one benefit of online courses is that they forced professors to test our high-level understanding of material, as opposed to our memorization of facts and numbers. With in-person classes, exams and quizzes are proctored by real people, and cheating is difficult. This allows professors and such to give exams with no notes and resources allowed and to ask questions about specific facts that you must memorize from the textbook. However, with online classes, cheating is much easier, as it is significantly more difficult to successfully restrict students’ access to course notes and other resources. Many of my professors recognized this and thus made all of my quizzes and exams open notes and open resources (thinking they couldn’t avoid it anyway). Since asking memorization-based questions would be too easy with this, my exams had understanding-based questions, where I had to apply the concepts and knowledge I learned to new situations and problems. In my mind, this is what should have been tested in the first place; a comprehensive understanding of overlying concepts and their connections stick with students, while specific memorized facts are forgotten over time. Furthermore, in the real world, specific facts and pieces of information can be Googled, while understanding of high-level concepts cannot be acquired quickly with a simple Google search. In a way, online learning forced this to actually be realized.

Lesson #2: Record Lectures

Another benefit of online courses was having lectures recorded and able to be viewed later on. I knew of many instances where people either got sick or for some other reason could not make class on time, so they had to watch the recording later instead. When classes are fully in-person again, I believe lectures should continue to get recorded. People will continue to get sick and have valid reasons for not being able to make lectures, so recordings should be in place to enable all students to keep up.

Lesson #3: School is More Than Merely Learning Information

One drawback of online learning that I experienced, and a serious one, is that I really did not connect with any of my classmates. Many of my courses consisted of 200 people in a Zoom call with their cameras off and practically no opportunities to meet people. I was able to make friends outside of my classes, but in them, I was essentially a lone soldier aside from an English class and a couple of classes I happened to share with my roommate. I learned the necessary information in my classes and am happy about my grades, but is that all that school is about? Are the thousands of dollars of tuition meant to merely learn information you could probably find for free somewhere on YouTube or Khan Academy anyway? I think not. College, and school in general, is more than merely learning information. It is also about meeting people, forming connections with people passionate about the same topics and areas that you are. It’s about forming a community of people where you share ideas and moments, growing together both academically and spiritually. With in-person classes and being physically near people, this happens naturally. However, this is not the case for online classes with nothing extra. Courses in the future should keep this in mind and make it a priority, whether they be in-person or online with additional opportunities for people to meet each other.

Lesson #4: Learning is Not One-Size-Fits-All

With the onset of online classes, I noticed that some people fared far better than others. I adjusted fairly well, while others that I know found online learning to have too many distractions or just to not work at all. Even within those who fared well with online courses, each had different methods of learning. Some people learned everything from lectures, while others learned material best in labs/recitations. Some people learned from reading the textbook, while others used supplemental resources such as worksheets and asynchronous modules. The truth is, everyone has different methods of learning that work best for them. Classes in the future should take this into account by providing a number of different methods/pathways to learn course material instead of one, strictly defined path.

These are a few of the many lessons I believe that we can learn from the onset of online courses and the pandemic as a whole. Of course, these are just my opinions and are subject to personal bias, but in any case, I hope that education during the pandemic has made us rethink how education should be after the pandemic.


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