Views on future of virtual learning at Quinnipiac divided

Melina Khan, Copy Editor

After a year of virtual learning, a post-pandemic normal in academia remains unclear.

While there are plenty of challenges to learning at a distance, there are also many benefits that students have grown accustomed to. In 2020, Wiley Education Services found that 78% of online students who have experienced in-person instruction felt as if their online participation was the same or better than learning in person.

Connor Lawless

“Sometimes I just genuinely am comfortable in my bed or on the couch or want to eat and not disrupt the class,” said Shannon Flaherty, a junior media studies major. “Being able to do things from the comfort of my room virtually is sometimes enjoyable.” 

Though the future of online learning is still being hashed out, Quinnipiac University’s administration is taking a stance against it. Students are not allowed to opt for hybrid or remote learning in the fall unless approved through an appeal process. 

However, Provost Debra Liebowitz said virtual learning may not go away completely. 

“When I think about this investment that Quinnipiac has made and the technology, the reason Quinnipiac did that was because there was a recognition that these tools can be useful in normal times,” Liebowitz said.

Students have mixed opinions on whether online options should continue.

“I feel more comfortable in my own workspace because it allows me to focus more on the professor’s lecture rather than the more tense classroom environment,” said Emma Bonica, a first-year 3+1 biology major.

Shawn Baker, a sophomore film, television and media arts major, said not being in person hinders the college experience.

“There’s a reason why I chose to go to college, and that was to get hands-on experience and education,” Baker said. “If I had wanted to do virtual classes I would have gone somewhere else where the tuition was a lot cheaper.”

Some students feel as if the virtual learning experience depends on the class.

“For my sociology classes, I am getting almost the same education on Zoom minus the in-class experience,” said Alyssa Baker, a sophomore film, television and media arts major. “However, my film classes have been really hard to do online, and I would prefer them to be in person as much as possible. I think (virtual learning) can be productive for classes that don’t require in-person work.” 

For professors, virtual learning presents different challenges.

Quinnipiac math professor Lisa Zarcone also teaches at North Haven High School. She said the hardest part of teaching online at both levels is trying to connect with students from behind a screen, especially if students keep their cameras off.

“I think about that all the time, how we’re supposed to be there to support you guys and to help you build your careers, but there’s that roadblock preventing it,” Zarcone said.

Zarcone said she doesn’t support the hybrid model continuing, but she could see more virtual-only classes as a possibility. Overall, she is glad her students have an opportunity to prioritize their mental health if they need to within the hybrid format.

“I think now with so many people having either some mental health concerns or just emotional struggles, if you need to stay at home in your bed, put your camera off and just listen, you can,” Zarcone said. “We have that opportunity now to take care of ourselves and everyone to really do what they need to do to support their own well-being.”

Clorinda Velez, associate professor of psychology, said virtual learning can exacerbate problems for students that struggle with their mental health.

“I often worry about students who tend toward depression,” Velez said. “If it’s already hard for you to get out of bed and go places, the fact that you don’t have to get out of bed and go anywhere may in the moment seem like a good thing, but I think it can actually be counterproductive and make things spiral down instead of up.” 

Velez also said learning format preferences depend on the student.

“To be able to do it all in one place may actually be less stressful for a number of students, which I think is a benefit, or if they’re just students who, for whatever reason, just aren’t comfortable in the classroom,” Velez said.

However, Velez said adjusting back to in-person instruction will be challenging for everyone, so keeping virtual options available will be helpful to ease the transition.

“A lot of us haven’t been that connected to others for a while, and for anyone who tends toward social anxiety, it’s going to be a little scary I think to try to get back there,” Velez said. “Or if you mentioned students with autism spectrum disorder, if they found that remote learning was working for them, if they now have to make a big transition back to in person learning, it may be challenging as well. I think many people may have gotten comfortable with a smaller life.”

Chair of media studies Nancy Worthington emphasized the cultural shift created by Zoom and other media platforms.

“I do think things have changed,” Worthington said. “There are some people who just want to hop on Zoom, sometimes outside of what’s considered normal work hours. I see pushback on that. I know many companies are allowing more of their employees to work remotely, sometimes from different time zones. Others plan to reduce the amount of time employees have to be physically in the office. And, sadly, I think we’ve seen the end of snow days.”

Worthington said she thinks some things are “here to stay,” like the use of Zoom for meetings or having guest speakers. 

Education Data projects the online learning industry will be worth more than $370 billion by 2026.

“I think that you’re asking a bigger question also, though, which does speak in some ways to the future of education and how does all of this disruption that we’ve lived through, what does it mean in a bigger way about alternate modes of accessing higher education,” Liebowitz said. “I don’t have the answers to those questions, but those are things that we’re talking about.”

Liebowitz said she suspects there are aspects of virtual learning that will continue, but above all, the No. 1 priority is to do what is in the students’ best interest.

“We might want to do certain things mediated through the technology now that we wouldn’t have done before, and that would be in the best interest of learning and would be able to foreground the kinds of instruction that are going to be the most efficacious,” Liebowitz said.

Though a consensus was not found among the students and faculty members who spoke to The Chronicle, many have said virtual options should at the very least exist for students who may be sick or cannot attend class in-person because of extenuating circumstances.

“I think virtual classes should continue post-pandemic only if there are weather, personal, or other issues to disrupt in-person academics,” said Jakob Potemri, a first-year film, television and media arts and English double major. “I think people should have a choice to attend the way they feel they best perform, and what fits best with their schedules.”

Regardless of the future of education, students agree that models implemented during COVID-19 will have a lasting societal impact.

“As much as we want everything to go back to normal in society, we have to also accept the fact that some things are going to change, and I think we need to see how we can create progress in moments of change,” said Ambar Pagan, a junior political science major.