November 18, 2020

YAO | Online Learning Isn’t All Bad, Keep the Good After the Pandemic

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I am loath to admit that Zoom University has any good qualities. Breakout room discussions in which one person asks a question followed by ten minutes of awkward silence. I’m pretty sure we’ve all had at least one big internet scare the hour before a crucial prelim or project due date. I have fallen asleep at least eight times this semester during lecture. Okay, fine, maybe that last one is my own fault, but I’m still going to blame it on Zoom. 

But, I have to give credit where credit is due, and some parts of the online environment are –– dare I make such a bold claim –– not the absolute worst thing in the world. In fact, I would go so far as to say that some of the accommodations professors have administered should carry over when we resume our pre-pandemic learning format. Ironically, a mere eight months ago, we were told that most of these adjustments would not be possible to implement.  

Perhaps the largest benefit of online school comes from recorded lectures. While this may not be feasible for every in-person course due to classroom impediments, I argue that if possible, every professor should try to record their live lectures and discussions. Lecture playback increases accessibility, providing students with more options to meet their educational needs. Students would no longer need to worry about missing a crucial detail in their notes or misunderstanding a concept the first time around. Furthermore, the incorporation of closed captions or video speed adjustments can make the class more inclusive for students who need extra accommodations, such as those with hearing impairments or non-native English speakers. Research has shown that our brains do not commit the majority of the information we come across to long-term memory, so the ability to go through a video multiple times would help us retain the knowledge for longer. 

In addition to video recordings, course materials should also be made available online for each class. In the past, I have had instructors who chose not to post materials on Canvas, making it difficult at times to catch up on missing notes. This semester has exposed a wide variety of discrepancies among student circumstances. Even during an in-person school year, some of these discrepancies will always persist, albeit in a less obvious manner. Posting notes online is a convenient way to support a wider range of studying styles. For instance, students who prefer to learn visually can refer back to the transcribed words or graphs on the lecture slides. Come exam time, all students would benefit from having the most crucial points of a course consolidated in one online folder. Having the materials posted would alleviate the stress of locating the source of a certain piece of information. 

One of the largest concerns about making course information more readily accessible is decreased attendance rates. However, there are ways to encourage students to engage in lectures without enforcing strict attendance policies. For example, one of my professors this semester keeps track of participation points using online clicker questions. Students who take the class asynchronously must rewatch the recorded lecture and submit a written justification for each of their answers to the clicker questions to receive the same credit. If such an interactive policy were to carry over to in-person classes, students would be incentivized to attend live lectures but would not be penalized for needing to miss class due to illness or some other reason. 

This year has shown that Cornell can sustain an online education system. Accessibility has become a top priority for every instructor as students tune into class from different states, time zones, and countries. This push toward attendance flexibility and a wider cache of available online resources should be extended to future in-person semesters. Doing so would allow students more control in tailoring their college education for their specific needs.

Katherine Yao is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at kyao@cornellsun.com. Her column, Hello Katie, runs every other Wednesday this semester.