Online Learning at ECC: A Dichotomy

Maya Liquigan and Shelby Anne Taylor

 

There are two sides to every story; online learning at Elgin Community College is no exception.

With the ever-evolving coronavirus still prevalent, the necessity for online classes at ECC is indisputable. Though essential, the virtual instruction that has taken place over the last 18 months has resulted in differing opinions from students about the value of online learning. On one hand, students are struggling significantly, and for good reason.

“Humans are social creatures,” said third-year student Sebastianne Runowiecki. “We’re made to be social. We’re made to work in groups. We’re made to survive as a society, not as an individual… You can’t live as an island.”

Runowiecki has been at ECC since the beginning of the pandemic and is studying computer science. Their semester was cut short when they had to move online in 2020. After struggling with their first virtual semester, they took time to reevaluate before coming back. According to Runowiecki, the lack of human interaction has limited their learning experience.

“You’re not just relying on your teachers, you’re relying on your fellow students to help each other out,” Runowiecki said.

A firm believer in peer learning, Runowiecki values the interaction that takes place in a classroom. According to Runowiecki, Zoom classes only provide a small amount of discussion, and this lack of interaction is why students are losing their motivation to learn.

Ammanuel Pang and Samantha Leon are both second-year students that graduated from high school in 2020. Pang spent $400 worth on new supplies to help overcome the challenge of online college classes. He went in with a new webcam, speaker, laptop, and high expectations. He was motivated to learn. Regardless, the struggles of online classes were unpredictable.

“The motivation was there in the beginning, but then the overwhelmingness and anxiety like, spiked through,” Pang said.

According to Pang, there is no easy way to admit to failure so was hesitant to share his experience. He said that with online learning, he shut down. He got distracted by being stuck at home as well as the chaos of the new education system. Pang admitted to his motivation plummeting and to the loneliness that he felt in online classes.

Leon did not expect to go through her first two years of college without stepping into a classroom. She noted that the biggest difference between in-person and online classes was how lonely it felt.

“I wasn’t able to interact with new people or, like, start growing in that sense,” Leon said. “Meeting people outside of my comfort zone, outside of my bubble, and interacting with professors— I feel like that part has been lost a lot.”

This lack of interaction and loneliness are felt on campus as well.

“A lot of learning to adult and to be someone who’s not a child comes from seeing your peers,” Runowiecki said. “It’s a social learning thing.”

To feel alone in an in-person class is a new level of isolation. Returning student Megan Huibregste felt firsthand the disconnect between an in-person class and an online class.

Huibregste, who is completing her associate degree at ECC, said that everyone in her on campus math class is too shy to participate and that she felt lonelier than she did in her online classes. She could tell that people were now uncomfortable in person after they had been online for so long.

It’s no surprise that the mandatory shift to virtual learning has rendered some students exhausted and unmotivated. But on the other side of COVID-19’s collegiate coin is a group of students less often heard from. A group of students experiencing an entirely different phenomenon learning online. A group of students who are absolutely thriving.

Brian Rodriguez, a third-year student studying music, said that his anxiety prevented him from completing required courses prior to the pandemic because they were only offered in person. Because of this, Rodriguez considered taking a break from school. But when COVID forced those classes to move online, everything changed for him.

“I feel like it really helped me to be more encouraged to keep going,” Rodriguez said. “Because I’m like, ‘Okay now you don’t have an excuse. You need to take the class, it’s online. What is there to worry about now?’ And I’ve been able to do it!”

Many online-preferring students echoed Rodriguez’s enthusiasm about the increased number of courses made available online during the pandemic. This addition of virtual classes was especially beneficial for some students with mental health challenges.

“I struggle with depression, so online classes are really helpful,” said one student who wishes to remain anonymous. “Like, I can still go to class if I’m struggling. I don’t have to force myself out of bed and go all the way to campus on a bad day. And because of COVID, there are way more online options. That’s such a big deal for me.”

Lexie Sanders, a second-year student who came to ECC at the beginning of the pandemic, said that it has been easier to manage her dyslexia as she has been learning at home.

“Sometimes with my dyslexia, if I get overly stressed, I’ll start having more episodes than usual,” Sanders said. “So, it is easier [online] because I’m not on my way to class when my professor approaches me about an assignment. It’s more relaxed so I don’t have as many issues with it. It feels more stress free.”

The stress-free environment offered by at-home learning is not a reality for all students at ECC. But those that do have this privilege have noticed positive changes to their academic performance.

Both Sanders and Rodriguez noted that their grades have improved significantly since moving entirely online. Sanders credits this progress to the fact she is more relaxed in her own home and, as a result, more focused on her work. Rodriguez attributes his good grades to the time he now feels comfortable taking to seek help from instructors.

“I think it’s easier for me to have a one-on-one with a teacher [online], because if I were at the school and I needed help, I feel like I would probably back out of staying after class or actually going to school during their office hours to ask for help,” Rodriguez said.

Every student that reporters spoke to who consider their virtual learning experience to be a positive one cited convenience, prevention of COVID exposure and the ability to go at a pace they find manageable as other reasons they are having such a good experience online.

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