The remote learning boom has meant that most university courses have moved online, but student surveys show that even the best online tutoring services (opens in new tab) can’t replicate every aspect of the college experience.
Last month, Harvard unveiled the results of its 2020 summer student survey, which garnered nearly 2,000 responses and revealed some hard truths about the effects of digital learning. In particular, it shone a light on what students really need to succeed at digital learning: secure finances, physical space and a sense of community.
Recent statements given to Harvard’s university newspaper, The Crimson (opens in new tab), suggest that students at the university are still struggling with the emotional toil of distance learning. After having classes pushed online for a full year, graduate learners report that issues such as poor personal internet connections, muddled online boundaries and a lack of cross-department, in-person interaction have degraded their experience.
A problem across the US
These student struggles aren't limited to Harvard. When MIT conducted a similar survey (opens in new tab) last year, nearly a quarter of the respondents reported that they didn’t feel like they were part of the MIT community. A similar proportion of respondents said that they didn’t have access to a suitable learning space and that financial stresses have made it difficult for them to learn.
Wider research conducted by the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium also backs this up. Conducting a study (opens in new tab) across five public research universities, the consortium found that the vast majority of students have experienced some form of obstacle when engaging in online learning. While the most commonly cited example was lack of motivation, other barriers include not having access to appropriate study spaces and a lack of interaction with other students.
Further SERU research (opens in new tab) also found that financial problems abounded for students, with 27% of graduate and professional students experiencing unexpected increases in living expenses and 24% experiencing a sudden reduction in incoming from other family members.
The surveys (opens in new tab) also suggest that these problems are more likely to affect students who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color.
And while the best student loans companies (opens in new tab) can alleviate some of the financial pressures, there are still severe barriers in place for students stuck at home.
The benefits of digital learning
There are, however, some students who have noticed the benefits of digital learning. Speaking to The Crimson, one Harvard student explained how the new approach to learning had allowed him to become more efficient, stating: “I can book things back-to-back-to-back about five minutes apart, and attend everything in the comfort of my own home.”
While an improved timetable and the ability to connect with international professors is a definite boon of remote learning, it’s arguably not enough to outweigh the negative toll that the switch has had on this generation of students. If institutions want to preserve the best aspects of digital learning, they might need to also address the financial, emotional and physical needs of their students.