ORONO — University of Maine senior Zachary Signorello prefers to take his college classes in person. It’s harder to motivate himself and connect with peers and professors in online classes, he said.
But in both the fall and spring semesters of this academic year, the 21-year-old found himself taking some of his classes by himself in front of his computer rather than in a classroom surrounded by peers. While many professors have returned to traditional classrooms and lecture halls, there weren’t any in-person offerings for some of the economics courses he needs as part of his major, he said.
Rebecca Babb-Brott, on the other hand, prefers the remote classes. The 59-year-old set out to finish her bachelor’s degree when both her children left the house, and is enrolled in the school’s online program for students like her who want to finish their degrees without significantly interrupting their lives.
“It gives you the flexibility to continue with your everyday life while also getting your education,” she said.
Although the phase of the COVID-19 pandemic that forced a sudden shift to online learning is over and students in Maine and around the nation have returned to college campuses, online classes haven’t gone away.
While K-12 schools and private nonprofit colleges have since gone back to the old way of educating students, public universities have stuck with online learning. The UMaine System has significantly decreased in-person course offerings and increased online classes, allowing individual faculty members and their department heads to decide whether to teach their courses in a classroom, online or with a mix of both. The system doesn’t appear to have any plans to reverse the shift.
The increase in online learning has both fans and critics.
Many students say they like having the choice because it allows them to create more-flexible schedules. Others say they don’t think they learn as much in online classes compared with in-person ones.
Experts in education and psychology, professors and school administrators have equally varied views on the potential benefits and detriments of online learning in higher education and what its future should be.
Some say the increased flexibility and accessibility that comes with virtual classes opens the door to students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to get a post-secondary degree and that the technology we have today should be used to increase access to higher education. Others say it’s hard to provide the same quality of education and holistic college experience when students are online instead of in classrooms, lecture halls and labs. Many say both things are true.
Data and research clearly show that online learning pales in comparison to in-person instruction for most K-12 students. But the issue is more nuanced when it comes to higher education. While many studies have found that higher-education students perform worse in online classes compared with in-person ones, others have found that online course offerings help students graduate in four years. One study found that although smaller classes were better conducted in person, students in large undergraduate classes benefited from an online format.
Universities in the UMaine system have offered some virtual classes for decades. But like public universities around the country, they have significantly increased online class offerings and decreased in-person ones in recent years.
Five years ago, around 75% of UMaine System classes were offered in person and 25% were offered online. Now the in-person share is 60% and the remote share is 40%.
The UMaine System never made a coordinated decision to maintain increased online learning post-pandemic. Rather, the pandemic forced rapid and drastic change, and some of those changes stuck.
“Many of our faculty who taught classes online for the first time during COVID became accustomed to it, enjoyed it and built their schedules around online delivery,” said Jeff St. John, the system’s Interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs.
The system’s remote work policy, written in the fall of 2020, explicitly says that remote work is “generally not an option for positions involving a high level of student, employee, or public contact.” However, the system’s acting vice chancellor for strategic initiatives, Carolyn Dorsey, said that policy does not apply to faculty even though such an exemption is not written anywhere in the policy.
Dorsey said it’s up to each university in the system to create remote work policies for faculty. However, there don’t appear to be any such written policies at the campus level.
As a result, the decision to teach online or in person lies with individual faculty members and their department heads.
St. John said that whether virtual or face to face, all system courses provide high-quality instruction. “We don’t deliver courses in any modality unless we are confident in the quality of the course in that modality for those students,” St. John said.
But some students said they don’t feel they take as much away from online classes as they do from in-person ones. And experts and educators say they worry that students taking online courses could miss out on parts of the college experience that occur largely outside of the classroom and suffer negative mental health impacts related to isolation.
Sophomore Chloe Boyes lives on campus in a dorm for honors college students at UMaine Orono, where she is studying social work. She’s taking one of four classes online this semester, even though she would rather take only in-person classes. The online class is required for her major, she said, and taking it online was the only option.
“Especially studying social work, I like to take classes in person,” she said. “I like to be able to actually raise my hand and ask questions.”
Boyes said she doesn’t think online classes provide the same quality of education.
“It feels like there’s less instruction and more independent work,” she said.
When taking in-person classes, the 19-year-old enjoys chatting with professors before and after class, she said. “A lot of the social work professors have experience in the field, so you can talk to them about that,” she said.
It’s harder with online classes to have those organic conversations and build relationships with her professors. “It feels like I’m just paying for the credit,” she said, “not the experience.”
Experts say Boyes’ situation highlights some concerns regarding online learning.
Because social relationships are so important in motivating students, it’s hard to create online classrooms as stimulating and inspiring as in-person courses, said Hunter Gehlbach, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education who focuses on educational psychology.
“To create that energizing effect that can permeate the whole classroom and reach all the students, (which) is part of the magic of in-person education, is hard to replicate online,” Gehlbach said.
Some faculty members agree that students who take online classes can miss out on certain elements unique to in-person learning.
Jim McClymer, a UMaine physics professor who teaches entirely in person, said being physically on campus gives students the opportunity to spend free time talking about big ideas and thinking creatively as they try to find their way in the world.
“With remote learning you take classes, get credits and graduate,” McClymer said. “But college should be so much more than that.”
At the same time, McClymer said he understands that quintessential college experience isn’t an option or a desire for everyone and that online learning can provide access to students who can’t drop everything to focus on their education.
Many students, including some who are paying to live on or near campus, say they favor remote classes. Some said they choose to take classes online so they can better manage their schedules with work or because they think online classes are easier.
UMaine senior Jack Thompson said taking online classes makes it easier to handle a full course load and hold his job at a nearby golf course.
“I work, so it is a lot easier for me to take online classes where I can manage my own schedule,” he said. “I can do work at my own pace and end up with a lot more free time.”
Thompson, who lives just off campus, is taking three of four classes online, all asynchronously, which means he can log on to watch lectures or complete assignments on his own time. In synchronous online formats, students log on at the same time as their classmates and professor.
Sandra Caron, a professor of family relations and human sexuality who has been teaching online courses since 2000, said she thinks virtual courses are a great way to learn for many students. Online courses can encourage students to dip their toes into higher education from the comfort of their own homes and allow the university to reach people who can’t drive to Orono or any of the system’s other schools.
“If you’re limited to in-person classes, you’re limited to people who can easily commute and can find time for education around other obligations,” Caron said.
Institutes of higher education around the country have swapped out brick-and-mortar instruction for a mix of in-person, entirely online and hybrid options.
Before the pandemic, 19% of undergraduate students were enrolled in exclusively online courses, 31% of students were enrolled in at least one distance education course and 50% of students were enrolled in all in-person courses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
In the 2021-22 school year, the latest year for which data is available, 30% of students were enrolled in all online classes, 29% were enrolled in at least one distance course and 41% were taking entirely in-person courses, the NCES reported.
This shift comes against the backdrop of a difficult moment for higher education in the United States. Undergraduate enrollment has been declining for over a decade, a trend that was exacerbated by the pandemic and the strong job market and which has left schools, including those in the UMaine System, struggling financially.
In this challenging post-pandemic environment, online classes may be seen as a financial lifeline, allowing schools to recruit students from around the country and boost enrollment without having to convince students to move thousands of miles and take on as significant of a financial burden. The UMaine System enrolls students who live as far away as California.
UMaine System board Chair Trish Riley said online learning ensures students can access all of the system’s resources by providing increased flexibility and allowing students to take classes offered across campuses.
Experts say online learning can be an important solution to declining enrollment and subsequent financial challenges.
“We need to think creatively about how to bring education to students who are not flocking to our doors right now,” said Nathan Daun-Barnett, a professor of educational leadership and policy who focuses on the economics of education, organizational change, access and equity at the University of Buffalo.
However, Daun-Barnett and other higher education finance experts said online learning isn’t a sure financial win for institutions set up to teach in traditional settings, as they already have in-person infrastructure they have to pay to maintain at the same time they invest in creating effective online courses. It makes sense right now, said Daun-Barnett, because enrollments are declining and schools need to make up that revenue. But if interest in higher education starts to increase again, online learning might not be a winning strategy.
The UMaine System’s shift to online learning stands in stark contrast to the trend among private nonprofit colleges, which have largely reverted back to traditional classroom instruction since the pandemic. Bates, Bowdoin and Colby colleges, for example, have all returned to providing exclusively in-person instruction.
Private colleges nationwide, and especially elite private colleges, have largely gone back to in-person education because face-to-face learning is a crucial part of their institutional identity, said Stephen Aguilar, a University of Southern California professor who specializes in educational psychology. Such elite private colleges, unlike public universities, continue to be successful with in-person learning and have no incentive to change the model.
Bowdoin College in Brunswick, for example, advertises itself as an institution of conversation and questioning that “thrives in classrooms, lecture halls, laboratories, studios, dining halls, playing fields, and dormitory rooms.”
Even before the pandemic accelerated the trend, the University of Maine System saw a future in digital learning.
Peter Schilling, UMaine Orono’s executive director of innovation in teaching and learning, is working on creative methods for top-of-the-line virtual learning opportunities. He’s been doing so since 2015, working with hundreds of faculty a year to elevate their classes with technology and to create effective and engaging materials for in-person and virtual courses, he said.
Schilling, who also teaches in a program that is entirely online, said it’s possible to create effective online courses that provide flexible schedules and help students come together to articulate their ideas and hear different viewpoints.
And, he said, he sees a bright future for remote learning. The pandemic may simply have accelerated it.
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