The Benefits and Drawbacks of Online Learning

By Chloe Mandel ‘23

students around seminar tableWhen Pomona first announced that students would be completing the second half of the spring 2020 semester online, I felt an immediate sense of dread as I thought back to my experience using an online program in high school. In ninth grade, when my family decided to temporarily leave my small town in Connecticut and travel in Europe, I took five online classes to keep up with my studies. While the program I used allowed me the flexibility to learn from anywhere and at any time, it was incredibly isolating. Class content involved independent reading from a textbook or listening to an occasional recording, and the only way I could communicate with my teachers was through email, where I’d sometimes wait up to two weeks for a response to a question. When I returned to my public high school sophomore year, my renewed gratitude for face time with my teachers and collaboration with other classmates played a part in my desire to attend a small liberal arts college.

It’s safe to say I didn’t start my Pomona online classes after spring break with the best attitude. Newly displaced from an environment I’d just begun to think of as home, I thought bitterly of all the in-person interactions I’d be missing over the next several weeks, not only with my professors but with my friends and classmates. Fortunately, my professors showed deep empathy for what we as students were going through; after all, they themselves had to take on the challenges of teaching from home, and a few had to care for their young children on the side. All four of my classes had renewed syllabi to reflect the reality of learning during a pandemic. Students in different time zones also had the option to view recordings of Zoom lectures rather than attend them live; my macroeconomics professor decided to base course material entirely on recordings to make class more accessible. The week before classes began, my Intro to Environmental Analysis professor personally reached out to me to ask my opinion on the course revisions he was considering.

Thanks to my professors’ adaptability, the digitized learning format offered some surprising benefits. As I listened to econ lecture recordings, I could pause to take notes and easily replay explanations of topics that confused me. I finished each recording with a better grasp of the material than I probably would have had in an in-person classroom, where I sometimes found myself scrambling to copy the graphs my professor wrote on the board while absorbing her words. My comparative politics and environmental analysis classes conducted discussions using breakout rooms on Zoom, replacing the often drawn-out and awkward shuffle of moving seats in a classroom for small group chats. By using the screen-sharing feature, all my professors could easily make class more engaging with videos, diagrams and other helpful media. As a bonus, I could wear my favorite comfy clothing to Zoom meetings (if you didn’t live in sweatpants for the first few weeks of quarantine, teach me your ways), and I had the added benefit of seeing some of my classmates’ dogs.

Carnegie HallHowever, it seems impossible to fully recreate the Pomona College classroom experience in an online format. I didn’t get to stroll through the beautiful Marston Quad to Carnegie Hall for politics class with my friend Maddie, talking about our days and that week’s assignments. I didn’t get to chat with my classmates and professors before and after class or enjoy tea and candy at the Writing Center while revising one of my papers with a writing partner. These are small moments, but they did so much to enrich my academic experience. While students still showed engagement in our online classes, the mood felt more subdued, and there were days when participation faltered because we all had other things on our minds.

COVID-19 has and will continue to test the resilience of Pomona’s community, academically and otherwise. There’s no sugarcoating the challenges of remote learning and the sense of isolation that can come with it. Nevertheless, while I can only speak for my own experience, I’ll always be grateful for the care and empathy my professors showed for me and my classmates. While I probably wouldn’t sign up for four years of a digital Pomona, six weeks of online learning revealed the benefits of adaptability.