Online learning has been grossly inadequate during the 2020-'21 COVID-19 shutdown, according to college and university students interviewed by VOA Student Union.
Domestic and international students at U.S. colleges and universities said the pandemic that shut down many schools in March 2020 disrupted their lives and impacted their academic performance. And online learning, despite being touted by online learning companies, has not lived up to the hype, they say.
Students say they are desperate to return to on-campus learning. They point to living in the dorms, socializing, and establishing relationships with professors and mentors as essential parts of the college experience.
Frozan Tahiry is a rising sophomore from Afghanistan who was accepted as a freshman at Wagner College in New York starting in Fall 2020. But she never made it to campus, instead finishing her freshman class online at home in Kabul.
"In Afghanistan, the electricity outage has been a huge issue that stressed me out. I had to come up with a backup plan in case I lost electricity, like getting solar system generators. And the poor Wi-Fi connection has been another issue. I missed five minutes of class to get on, and throughout the class, the connection was on and off," she said.
"I feel like I have been living in two different worlds but in neither of them properly because of the time zone differences. My day and night were completely shifted. I took my classes at night and slept during the day, so it disturbed my social life," she said.
For her, learning is not all about academics: Interaction with peers is also important.
She doesn't know her classmates because it was not required for students to keep their cameras on during remote learning.
"I couldn't have dinner with my family because I was in class. And I couldn't see them in the morning because when they got up, I was going to bed because I was staying up all night to attend online classes," Tahiry continued.
She said she hopes to come to the U.S. to resume her classes in person during the fall semester 2021.
According to Inside Higher Ed's Student Voice survey, in partnership with College Pulse and supported by education company Kaplan Inc., nearly half all students (47%) rated their educational value as "fair" or "poor."
"When the pandemic started it was very stressful because we had no idea what was going on with COVID and how unsafe we were, so nothing was enjoyable," said Jack Morningstar, a rising senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who moved off campus in March 2020.
"Having access to Zoom and other platforms was helpful to get through this time, but it was still hard," he said.
Even more frustrating was when Morningstar returned to campus in August 2020, and after just a week of classes, the university announced that all undergraduate instruction would move online because of a COVID outbreak. This made national headlines as UNC's 30,000 students — including 1,254 international scholars from 79 countries — were forced to return to remote learning.
Normally a motivated student, Morningstar said he did not pay attention and didn't care as much about his studies.
"It wasn't a very conducive environment for learning," he said, admitting that during online classes he was often on his computer scrolling Facebook.
"I feel more pressure to participate in person because there is more accountability. You are talking in front of many people, whereas online you're staring at your computer screen," he said.
"And I definitely would participate more when classes are in person."
Nawal Khrram faced a similar situation, staying at home in Pakistan, feeling isolated, and studying online for fall semester of freshman year 2020. She arrived at Trinity College in Connecticut in spring 2021.
"I didn't have any social life for the first semester because I was studying online, and I was not aware of the opportunities such as clubs and organizations that students are involved in," Khrram said.
Even when she came to the U.S. and lived on the Trinity campus, she continued class online because the college did not offer her classes in person.
"I really felt the need to talk to my classmates and discuss some of the topics with them. I am a political science major, so my major heavily depends on discussions and debate over political issues," she said.
"Although we had small breakout rooms on Zoom to get engaged in class discussions, it was not the same as traditional in-person classrooms."
Natahsa Nash, a rising junior at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which made online learning difficult. She said she felt isolated in her college dorm room. With in-person classes, on the other hand, she found ways to stay engaged because she was interested in the materials and class discussions.
"Online learning didn't feel the same, even if I left my dorm room and set up my computer outdoors. I felt very disengaged because of the format itself," said Nash.
The most difficult thing was losing her support system.
"I usually get support by going to public places with background noise. I need to be with friends because I get a lot of energy from social activities. So I just felt very low energy and low mood, and it was really hard to find the energy to do homework," she said.
Nash's social life got sidetracked by COVID, but she said she was still able to see some of her friends on campus and grab meals while sitting six feet apart.
She is hopeful the upcoming semester will mark a return to normal.
"People like me who have trouble with online learning would need a few years to figure out all the new strategies," she concluded.
Despite these negative experiences, educators in the U.S. are betting on the future of online learning. According to Business Wire, the e-learning market in the U.S. is expected to grow by $21.64 billion between 2020 and 2024, fueled, in part, by COVID.
But Forbes Magazine predicts that online college education will not overtake traditional learning and will remain "more of a backup than a daily alternative or competitive replacement."