In a new online survey, more than two-thirds of college students report they learned less because of higher education’s shift to online learning during the pandemic.
Bernard McCoy, professor of broadcasting at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, conducted the spring 2021 survey of 500 college students who attended 30 institutions in 22 states. McCoy’s research is published in the July edition of the Journal of Media Education.
Students cited home distractions, social isolation and harder communication with other students as challenges that hindered learning during the pandemic. Four out of five respondents said they found online and remote learning more distracting than classroom learning.
Most U.S. colleges abruptly switched to online and remote learning in March 2020, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Before the declaration, less than 3% of the students surveyed said they had taken online classes at least 91% of the time. Six months after the declaration, more than two-thirds of the surveyed students were taking online classes at least 91% of the time, while 90% reported taking at least half of their classes online.
“This was a tsunami that no one saw coming,” said McCoy, who added technology and equipment to improve his remote instruction. “Suddenly, it was looming in front of us and washing over us. And so we had to learn how to swim.”
Yet, broken out by time periods, the survey may indicate students’ growing comfort level and faculty’s greater expertise with remote learning techniques as the pandemic wore on.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act provided $14 billion in federal funding to allow colleges to make critical technology and software upgrades to ensure learning continued for their students during the pandemic. During summer 2020, many colleges expanded their professional development and instructors reconfigured their fall online and remote classes to make them more effective.
As vaccinations became available in spring 2021, many colleges began planning for a return to full classroom learning in fall 2021.
At the time of the survey in late winter and spring 2021, students were divided whether they wanted to return to full-time classroom learning when the pandemic ends. Slightly less than half said they wanted to return to classroom-only instruction. Slightly more than half said they’d like to continue with at least one remote learning option, whether it be asynchronous online classes that let them choose when they work on assignments; synchronous online classes that meet at set times but allow students to attend remotely; or a hybrid of the two.
The main reason they liked remote learning? Nearly half the students said they liked being able to schedule classes around full- or part-time jobs, and 45% said online studies saved them time and money. Nearly 40% cited anxiety about COVID-19.
McCoy said those results may signify a permanent change in the way higher education is delivered.
“The pandemic’s large-scale online/remote learning experiences, for better and worse, were a difference maker for millions of U.S. students, compared to the primary classroom learning experiences that preceded it,” he wrote in the journal article. “The results of this study suggest some pandemic learning experiences are reflected in new and increasingly innovative ways present-day instructors teach at many higher education institutions.”
The survey was conducted via SurveyMonkey, and participants included undergraduate and graduate students who attended college in Arkansas, Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Participants were recruited by college instructors and voluntarily participated in the 22-question anonymous survey.
Before the pandemic, McCoy used three similar national surveys to examine the impact of smartphones and similar technology on classroom learning.
“The pandemic rewrote our social and personal lives,” he said. “It touched our finances, employment security, our dependency on technology, mental health, businesses big and small, and the outlook many of us have for our future.
“These experiences may have changed the attitudes and expectations many U.S. students have about the ways they wish to learn in college, as well as their perceptions about the value of earning college degrees.”