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Shift to online classes raises doubts about digital learning

Universities should provide more interactive experiences within online courses. ORACLE PHOTO

Before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many believed that the future of higher education would focus on a shift to virtual learning. However, recent studies cast doubt on the effectiveness of these courses as they’re currently offered. 

While universities did not choose this massive switch, they should reconsider their approach to remote instruction after the pandemic subsides.

A 2017 study published in the American Economic Review used a dataset of over 200,000 students and 750 courses at a for-profit college to compare student grades between online and in-person classes. They found that if a student took a class online, their course GPA on average would be .44 points lower than if they took it in person.

In other words, a student who would earn a B- (2.8) in an in-person class would earn a C (2.4) in an online class.

One reason why students may perform poorly is a lack of interaction between faculty and students. A 2019 review of the research on online classes from George Mason University called this missing interaction the “Achilles’ heel” of online learning. 

Without the ability to ask questions and have meaningful class discussions face-to-face, students miss out on active learning experiences that help them understand and remember information.

The review also found that students who studied online, especially underprepared and disadvantaged students, would underperform and experience poor outcomes. Grades for students who already struggle with in-person classes suffer most from the loss of personal contact with faculty and other students. 

With so many students transitioning to online classes because of COVID-19, some have expressed the same concerns toward online learning at USF. 

“I actually miss that human connection and interaction,” said first-year student Syed Hasan in a March 25 interview with The Oracle. “In-person learning is incomparable to online learning.”

In an April 6 interview, engineering junior Kush Mathur shared similar sentiments. “It’s not the same and learning is surely affected,” Mathur said. 

As students gear up for a fully online summer semester, these problems aren’t going away any time soon. To improve students’ learning, universities must provide more interactive experiences for their online courses, including opportunities for live questions and discussions. Some classes are using these features now through software like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but they are not applied evenly. Uniform standards and best practices are needed.

As many more students take these online classes due to the COVID-19 crisis, these issues will become more widely visible. Universities must work to make these courses more effective.

Mohamed Abdelmagaid is a junior studying political science and integrated public relations and advertising.