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Professors Study Online Learning and Its Effects on College Students During the Pandemic

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When the pandemic forced university students to study at home, Sinjini Mitra and Denise Stanley set out to understand the impact that virtual learning would have on students’ college experience, performance and future preferences for online learning.

Some of the results were surprising. While many focused on a lack of technology and Wi-Fi issues, the researchers discovered that a lack of privacy and space led students’ concerns. In fact, 62% of the approximately 300 respondents from two surveys conducted in spring 2021 and fall 2020, indicated privacy as one of their primary concerns.

“There was an overlap of family issues and needing a quiet space to take classes, study and read,” said Stanley, professor of economics. “Among the students we surveyed, the average number of people living in a household was four. And if everyone is crammed together, trying to get on the internet for work or classes or taking care of children, it was hard for students to concentrate. Additionally, not all families necessarily have strong access to the internet from home.”

“I think the university did an amazing job getting laptops, MiFis and assistance to students,” said Mitra, professor of information systems and decision sciences. “Only 4% to 5% rated technology issues as a problem. There’s no doubt the efforts made by the university helped make tech issues less problematic.”

Because so many early studies focused on how the pandemic affected students in K-12, the professors wanted to focus on what was happening with college students.

“I had taught online classes prior to the pandemic and looked at the differences in why some students chose online learning over face-to-face learning,” Mitra said. “However, when the pandemic hit, students didn’t have a choice. We wanted to see what was going to happen. We also wondered if it would change student preferences going forward.”

That said, the researchers were aware that since students didn’t have a choice, this could also affect their perceptions toward learning.

“Some students hadn’t taken an online class before,” said Mitra. “Early on, they looked terrified but we did see some preferences change over time. Some students who didn’t like online learning before, started to prefer it.”

These changes tended to reflect the students’ online experiences. If they had a negative experience measured through questions relating to access to a safe and quiet space for completing coursework, taking online exams and the number of people in their household, they weren’t as inclined to plan to register for online programs in future semesters. Conversely, if they had a positive experience, they were more likely to consider online options.

Underrepresented students had a statistically significant percentage who identified “a lack of library and study spaces as an academic challenge” and who identified “a physical health problem as a personal experience during COVID.”

Students had opinions about synchronous classes (classes held in real time) and online asynchronous classes (classes that are recorded and can be viewed outside of regular class times). “The survey data was mixed in regards to the style of online coursework students want going forward; 35% preferred synchronous while 42% preferred asynchronous (with the rest stating no preference).” Personal conversations with professors suggested some benefits of the synchronous Zoom classes taken. 

“I think they felt closer to their classmates because there was more real-time access to each other,” said Mitra, while describing some of her own interactions with students enrolled in her classes in fall 2020 and spring 2021. “Synchronous classes seemed closer to the in-person experience and provided them with more ability to connect with each other and their teachers.”

“We are seeing the number of enrollments increase in online courses,” Mitra said. “People are more comfortable with the technology and the online teaching has improved with more videos, supplemental materials, resources and tools. People also like the ease of online programs — no fighting traffic, looking for parking, paying for gas and meals away from home. Stresses like that can have an impact on learning, too.

“I think we’re in a transition time now with universities offering both in-person and online classes to better meet the needs of students. For those who are still dealing with privacy issues during online classes due to lack of space, we might want to look at developing campus spaces for them to take online classes. We’ll also have to continue developing campus spaces to meet the needs of online students who may be struggling by offering additional online tutoring and support.”

Mitra and Stanley plan to continue their research and conduct a new survey to see how attitudes change over the coming year.

Valerie Orleans