The Varieties of Online Learning Experiences

J.J. Sylvia IV


In the spring of 2020, K-12 and higher education classes around the world shifted online in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Both students and instructors were forced to quickly adapt to these circumstances even though many had never previously taken an online course or taught an online course. Throughout spring and summer, data collection and reporting suggested that students were not happy with this transition online and may not return for the fall semester if courses were not in person. University administrators faced a difficult balancing act between protecting the health of students, faculty, and staff, and making sure that dropping enrolment did not financially devastate universities.

For this presentation, I will share the results of this process at my institution, Fitchburg State University. As of 2019, there were approximately 3,400 undergraduate students and 1,200 graduate students. Approximately half of the undergraduates normally live on campus. The graduate programs are largely online masters programs. This analysis is based on quantitative and qualitative analysis of the following data: 1) A survey sent to all students just before the end of the spring 2020 semester (n=2760), an end-of-semester feedback survey for my classes at the end of the spring 2020 semester (n=12), feedback collected from faculty members about their technology needs by the faculty union and members of the Technology Advisory Committee, feedback collected by peer mentors from all first-year students in October 2020, and individual conversations with students and advisees.

In the campus-wide survey, 69.72% of students agreed or strongly agreed that the university had done a good transitioning to the remote delivery of learning and services in response to COVID-19. Students reported that their class content was delivered via online synchronous classes (60%), online asynchronous (75%), conference call (8%), email (46%), and other (5%). Totals are greater than 100% because students could select multiple options. I served as a member of our university’s Technology Advisory Committee, and one concern that was raised repeatedly by faculty members was that some classes faced larger hurdles in being adapted for online teaching, which included art courses (including film/video and game design) and science labs. For this reason, we included a survey question for students about how easy it had been for them to perform a variety of assignment types online. The results are presented in Figure 1.

Student responses generally reflected faculty concerns, in that writing and quiz-based assignments were easier for students than more project-based assignments. In my own student evaluations, I solicit feedback about specific tools and strategies that worked well for students across all of their classes. In responding about specific tools, the vast majority of students thought that the social annotation tool used for course readings (which in my class was already in use before the pandemic) was what worked best. This was followed closely by Zoom and Google Meet with some disagreement in preference over these two platforms. In terms of strategies, most students reported that having optional synchronous check-ins was the pedagogical strategy that worked best for them, while several reported preferring synchronous and asynchronous approaches. This response was perhaps the most surprising to me, as I held optional synchronous sessions for my classes, and only about 2-4 students per week (out of about 75) attended these sessions.

Several questions were geared toward planning ahead for the fall semester. The campus survey asked students which factors were having an influence on their thoughts about whether or not to return in the fall semester. The highest-ranked results were financial concerns (40%), uncertainty with what the university is doing (38%), quality of academic experience in the spring semester (35%), change employment (31%), and fear of taking online classes (31%). Students were able to select more than one option, allowing it to total to greater than 100%. Qualitative comments also indicated that most students supported face-to-face instruction over remote instruction. This feedback, along with national reporting, guided the administration’s planning to include in-person classes for the fall. In my student evaluations, I asked students what advice they would give their professors for the fall semester if some or all of the classes needed to be taught online. The following were representative comments:

  • “Other classmates have poor or no internet at their homes and have to find places to do their work, or live in toxic environments which may affect how much work that they can do at home and don’t feel comfortable disclosing that information to their professors.”
  • “Be patient with us, we’re trying to balance our personal lives with school, and it’s much harder when it’s all online and our situation at home isn’t the greatest. If we’re used to being in a real classroom and suddenly throw into 100% online classes, bear with us. We know you’re learning too.”
  • “Be flexible. Online learning is very difficult for people with learning disabilities or mental health problems.”

I should note that, while the university was not able to provide tools to every student, it did secure enough Chromebooks and hotspots to meet the needs of every student who made such a need known. These were loaned to students at no-cost. 

Guided by this feedback, faculty were given wide discretion in choosing how to offer courses for the fall semester. Several new distinctions were created to allow for greater flexibility in course offerings and encourage even partial in-person offerings. Previously classes were designated as being in-person, online, or hybrid. For the fall, “online” was designated to mean fully asynchronous, while the category of “onsync” was added for fully online courses that would require synchronous attendance via video. Finally, “hybrid” was expanded to encompass several different approaches, which included options such as:

  • Everyone attending in-person one day per week and online the other day
  • Half of the students attending in person on one day and onsync the other day, alternating days
  • Allowing students to choose on a class-to-class basis whether to attend in-person or onsync. 

Faculty were also able to develop additional approaches to hybrid options if those worked better for them. In partnership with our IT department and the Center for Teaching and Learning, faculty-led professional development on digital tools and pedagogy was held throughout the summer. While helpful, these sessions did sometimes highlight competing tools. For example, Blackboard has been the standard learning management system for the university for many years. However, in the fall of 2019, we transitioned to the Google Education platform for email and the rest of the G Suite tools. This opened the option to use Google Classroom in addition to or instead of Blackboard, and many faculty members had plans to try this new tool for the first time in the fall of 2020. 

There is evidence that suggests additional scrutiny may need to be given to results that showed a student preference for in-person learning. While students certainly have that preference, it is not clear that this preference was expressed with a full understanding of what socially distanced and hybrid classrooms would look like in practice or of what the public health would look like in the fall. As we approached the beginning of the fall semester, many faculty reported receiving emails from students asking if they could complete in-person or hybrid classes completely remotely. Although only anecdotal evidence has been collected on this issue, it does suggest that perhaps while many students do ultimately prefer in-person learning, they do not prefer it in the limited manner that is possible during an ongoing pandemic. Further research that delves deeper into the question would be helpful. 

This semester, student feedback from freshman via peer mentors as well as informal feedback I’ve collected from upperclassmen indicates that somewhat overwhelmed, students are struggling with managing the wide variety of different tools and platforms being used across their classes. For example, there remains confusion about when classes are meeting online vs. in-person and where to access links for these meetings. Some have reported that these plans have changed with short notice as well. Other students reported difficulty accessing e-books, online videos, and other tools because of software conflicts. For asynchronous courses, some students felt they lacked support. 

In conclusion, because students expressed a strong preference for in-person learning, we opted for maximum flexibility that would allow those professors who were willing to do so to offer some in-person instruction. However, this led to an array of options that continue to be confusing to students. This expansion of services that needs monitoring by students is layered on top of an already scarce attention economy. Even before the pandemic, students reported that the amount of email that they received from various individuals, organizations, and clubs across campus was too much to properly manage. Now, students are facing uncertain and challenging circumstances during a pandemic that continues unabated in the United States.

At the same time, they are by necessity learning to manage an array of new platforms and tools, while also adapting to time-management strategies that require even higher self-regulation. While most instructors are able to choose one set of tools and deploy those across all of their courses, students are navigating a vast array of platforms and tools that create a variety of online learning experiences that adds to the amount of information that must be learned and managed. This suggests that in the future, some attention should be given to the tension between faculty’s academic freedom to select tools and the difficulty students face in learning and using multiple tools and learning management systems while simultaneously juggling stress related to learning from home. It is also worthwhile to revisit student preferences for online vs. in-person learning in light of their experiences in the fall and the ongoing pandemic.


Photo by Gery Wibowo on Unsplash


J.J. Sylvia IV is an Assistant Professor in Communications Media at Fitchburg State University. His research focuses on critical data studies, the philosophy of communication, and digital pedagogy. Using the framework of posthumanism, he explores how the media we use contribute to our construction as subjects. He brings an affirmative and activist approach to contemporary data studies that highlights the potential for big data to offer new experimental approaches to our own processes of subjectivation. He lives in Worcester, MA with his wife and two daughters.  

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