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Fall Semester 2020 And Beyond: Here's What Students Are Thinking

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I read a surprising statement in an article yesterday: Nearly half of high school seniors say they're considering a gap year because of the pandemic. Writers Hillary Hoffower and Juliana Kaplan note that almost half (43 percent) of high school seniors who haven't yet committed to a college are considering a gap year, a recent LendEDU survey found. Also, students are willing to wait for a full college experience: They don't want to pay for Zoom classes or experience deserted campus life.


This student mindset isn't hard to understand. College and high school students were summarily dismissed from their schools in mid-March and have been relegated to online classes since then. In general, their dislike for that style of learning is negative, to say the least. Consequently, the quality of education has taken a nosedive, according to some sources.

Online Classes Get Low Marks

Two such sources are Campus Reform's Students want campuses reopened, lament 'quality' of online classes, and Story Bistro's The Truth About Why You Aren't Learning Anything in Your Online Classes. Campus Reform asked students at the University of Florida about reopening college and university campuses after the coronavirus pandemic and found that most favored reopening, but confirmed their dislike for online learning. For full details about their dislikes, check the video on the Campus Reform link.

Story Bistro goes into some depth about why students feel that online classes come up short from a learning perspective. Some reasons are obvious, others less so, as Téa Silvestre Godfrey observes:

- There's no teacher/student eye contact. Even when you do get to interact with the instructor in an online environment, it's usually via a webinar. And all you get to do is type a comment into the chat box (if you're there when the thing is done live). People underestimate the power of eye contact in building a relationship. And online instructors especially need to think about this stuff if they want their students to engage with them and the course materials. Eye contact keeps us accountable. It's an unspoken method of saying "I'm here. I'm showing up"...

- There are too many distractions. Being online is a rabbit hole for most of us. The constant desire to check one's email or see what's new on Facebook makes it difficult at best to focus on learning. Only the most disciplined of us will shut down the other windows and concentrate just on the work in front of us. In a real classroom, most of us would be embarrassed to be seen checking our email during a class discussion … But if we aren't fully present and focused during a class meeting, nothing that's said will stick.

- There's no requirement to participate. When you sign up for most online courses — whether they're delivered on-demand or not — nobody asks you to leave if you don't participate. In fact, nobody even notices or cares if you don't show up for a discussion. You could be dead on the side of the road for all they know … as long as you paid your fee, you're in. And if it's an ongoing membership type thing, they'll happily take your money until you shut it off. Kind of like that gym membership you once had.

- There's no small group work or buddy system. In college courses, I always found it slightly annoying when the professor would have us work together on a project. I didn't fully appreciate then the power of collaborative learning … It did so many things in one fell swoop: added another layer of accountability; allowed stronger students to help mentor the weaker ones; pushed folks beyond their comfort zone, allowing them to develop leadership skills

- There's not enough critical thinking. Many online courses promise to teach you someone's "blueprint" or "roadmap." Just follow these step-by-step instructions and you, too, will create a six-figure business in just 90 days! The instructor rarely asks you to think about their process as a starting point. To ask questions like, Will this work for my audience and my business? If we aren't encouraged to ask questions, we don't really learn anything

Adding my personal perspective, I would zero in on "no eye contact." Body language has a lot to do with communication, and facial expressions say a lot about what's going on inside someone's head. I recall college classes where a professor's body and face were full of animated energy and their movement around the classroom or lecture hall created a kind of electrical tension that energized the class, inspiring much back and forth between students and teacher.

Conversely, some teaching assistants under whom I studied exhibited a kind of machine-like separation from the material, delivering it in droning monotones and rarely establishing interaction with the other carbon-based units in the room. This is something that teachers will have to overcome to earn enthusiasm in the online format. If you want an ideal example of how exciting and engaging online learning can be, check out some of the offerings from The Great Courses. Here, you will find the model that all college professors and TAs should be following, one that engenders the joy of learning.

Gap Year Plans on the Rise

Perhaps the main fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic for current and about-to-be first-year college students is the significant number who will opt for a gap year. Their attitudes about having to face another distasteful semester or more of online classes is the driving force behind getting away from being homebound tied to a computer, rather than learning within a classical college experience. Most are betting that getting away from the current "extreme safety" trappings of college today will return them a year from now to the "normal" college experience they crave. I tend to agree with that strategy.

Speaking of normal college experiences, some prospective gap year students are being motivated by their visions of what campus life may be like this fall or longer even if their college does bring back students. It will be a new and strange reality.

Juliana Kaplan, writing in early May for Business Insider, anticipates this when she pictures The end of campus life: What colleges will look like in the fall, from Zoom classes to deserted quads and sports stadiums. She projects that when — and if — colleges reopen in the fall, campus is probably going to look very different. Some schools are planning to reopen, but will still have, for better or worse, remote learning, while others are considering a hybrid approach. Colleges will likely have fewer students in general, which means that social life for students who do return in the fall will be far from what it used to be. At least that's what college administrators hope to realize.

Kaplan cites some specific approaches colleges are considering, but keep in mind that plans are fluid and can change before Fall 2020 commitments are made:

Harvard says it will open in fall 2020, but is preparing "for a scenario in which much or all learning will be conducted remotely." Princeton has asked its faculty to prepare for the fall under the "assumption that their classes will be online."

University of Missouri System President Mun Choi has become "less optimistic" about a full reopening in the fall, according to the Columbia Missourian. In Michigan, Oakland University will have a "hybrid" approach of in-person and virtual instruction, Bridge Michigan reports.

And, for the schools that do open, life will look different. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Brown University President Christina Paxson wrote that she envisions empty stadium stands, spaced patrons at campus performances, and Zoom parties

Zoom parties? How appealing does that sound? New high school graduates who have been accepted to college and have made the gap year decision are probably looking to avoid wasting an entire year of college where the following kinds of experiences, as expressed by past college students, aren't going to happen:

- "If you live in a dorm, it is like being at a massive sleepover with all your friends, every night. People are just a few doors down and always looking to hang out. Therefore, it takes profound skill to juggle both academics and a social life."

- "Usually on the weekends, we get together and cook dinner because eating out in the city is expensive. We make a lot of extra food so we all have leftovers throughout the week. Other regular activities we do together include going to concerts, plays and poetry readings."

- "We watch TV. We hit a tennis ball around the grounds with a golf club, keeping track of our scores with targets in mind. We go to a frat party every couple of weeks."

- "What I wish I'd done differently more than anything is hang out with my guy friends more often. ... Last year, I hung out more with my girlfriend and a few of her friends ... than with all the guys in my hall."

Again, if administrators have their way, Fall 2020 and likely the entire 2020 to 2021 academic year will not allow for the above and many other traditional college experiences. Online classes, social distancing, frequent hand washing, temperature checks, COVID-19 testing, quarantines, masks, gloves and other protocols are promising to make the upcoming college year extremely challenging, if not one to forget. What do you think about that?

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