The Catch-22 of Online Education:

How the Coronavirus and Distance Learning Affect the Wellbeing of a College Freshman

By Hannah Hulbert

From the moment Chancellor Yang sent out the first email addressing Covid-19 and the campus community, students understood that their undergraduate careers were permanently altered. As the student body was unceremoniously sent away, seniors mourned the loss of their final quarter at UC Santa Barbara, realizing that unspoken goodbyes would always linger, that the chance to appreciate all the “last times” of college was lost. 

While the seniors grapple with bleak post-graduate prospects, freshmen who were just finding their rhythm in higher education face a changing learning experience that creates new challenges to an already high-stress environment. Julia Pratt, a first-year pre- biopsychology major, shares her reaction to the transition to distance learning, her thoughts on professors’ responses to student needs in the era of Coronavirus, and her concerns for the future. 

From Respite to Ruin 

For Pratt, the news that in-person classes were canceled through April was a relief. As her professors canceled her finals, she was left with a near-perfect GPA and the opportunity to go home and recuperate from a particularly grueling academic quarter. The reprieve was short-lived, however. Upon finding out that classes would not resume on campus for the entirety of spring quarter, Pratt felt one emotion: frustration. 

“I’m upset that I don’t get any of the other experiences that would help contribute to my education…in addition to the normal resources and feeling of being at school,” she says. Like other students, the inability to physically go to class and participate hurts her educational experience. As a pre-biopsychology major, much of Pratt’s understanding of lecture material is reinforced by the practical experience she gains from labs. “Labs really help you visualize what you learn in class and see their application in a real-life setting,” she explains. Without this practice, much of what she is learning remains conceptual, which she worries will hurt her understanding in future classes. 

Additionally, Pratt struggles to communicate with her professors effectively. She jokes, “I would always be that person to raise my hand in a big lecture”; unfortunately, there’s no lecture hall in which she can raise her hand, and, as a result, she is “finding it a lot more difficult to find time to ask the questions that [she has].” As spring quarter draws to a close and talks of instruction remaining online for fall quarter become louder, her concerns only grow. 

Julia’s Choice 

More troubling than the educational difficulties Pratt faces is the toll that online learning has taken on her mental health. She credits much of her ability to perform academically to separating her school life and her home life. She elaborates, “I never do work where I sleep. At school, I always go to the library, to the UCEN, anywhere but my dorm to study.” Forced to work from home, Pratt struggled to adapt. She eventually cleared out a room in her house, ordered a desk, and committed to working in that space only. While this helped mitigate some of her troubles with online schooling, she still struggles with many of the implications of distance learning. 

Pratt describes how this learning environment has affected her emotional state: “Because I have to study in the same place I live, I find no relief in finishing my work each day. I always feel like there’s something else I have to do, and it makes me anxious.” The anxiety makes it hard for her to sleep, hard for her to get out bed and work, hard for her to focus on the tasks she faces. 

While some professors have cut down on the work they assign or have been more flexible about deadlines in order to help their students during this time, others have increased the amount of work they give in an effort to ensure their students commit the time to learning the material. Pratt is experiencing both teaching methods this quarter. 

She is particularly appreciative of her calculus professor, Peter Garfield, who is dedicated to making the material he teaches as accessible and digestible as possible. Garfield breaks the lecture up into increments no longer than ten minutes so that students can focus on one concept at a time and absorb the lesson at their individual paces. In Pratt’s eyes, this is the most practical way to teach under the current circumstances: “He is genuinely invested in making sure we understand what he’s teaching without overwhelming us,” she relays. 

Conversely, one of Pratt’s other professors believes that the best way to teach during this time is by inundating students with work and providing very little flexibility regarding due dates. “I don’t want to name names…but I don’t appreciate her at all,” Pratt says of this professor. The professor gives many homework assignments with different due dates scattered throughout the week. If an assignment is so much as one minute late, she fails the student. At one point during the quarter, many of the students approached her as a group, asking to consolidate the due dates onto one day each week to help the students stay organized so that nothing slips through the cracks. The professor took this as a personal attack and refused to adjust the format of the course. 

While battling to stay on top of a deluge of assignments, Pratt realized there is a catch-22 to online schooling: many students must pick between prioritizing their mental health or performing well academically. No matter what one picks, they will suffer in some respect. 

Looking to the Future 

It is hard for Pratt to visualize what her next step is. “I don’t think I have it in me to do another quarter of online schooling,” she admits. Yet, taking a quarter off is not an appealing solution, either. Her confusion encapsulates the current struggle of college students across the nation: should they work themselves to the bone trying to keep up with online schooling, or should they delay going back to school until some semblance of normalcy returns? Unfortunately, there is no clear solution, but one thing is certain: students everywhere must be commended for their tenacity under these circumstances.

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