November 1, 2020

Zoom: Educational Boon or Learning Doom?

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by Dylan McIntyre 

Online education is a pretty polarizing topic nowadays. Most of us are experiencing it firsthand, and after several months of using Zoom, chances are you either love its flexibility and leniency (how else would I get to attend lectures in pajamas?) or you just want to throw your stupid laptop out the window because your background image has been permanently burned into your retinas. With all the controversy surrounding “Zoom University,” it’s worth considering whether online school is actually a viable teaching method. Virtual education has existed for a while now, but in times of COVID-19, it has quickly become the standard to ensure safety for students. But is this an appropriate standard for a modern, technological world? Or is staring at a computer screen all day harming our ability to learn?

Traditional classroom learning is an effective way to learn for many students, despite it being much different nowadays. Being in a room with your professor and your peers allows for greater engagement with material and collaboration with others. Also, it’s fun to talk to people! We humans are social beings, and the in-person classroom setting is another social sphere where friendships and partnerships can develop.

Online learning does offer an appealing setup, though. Instead of having regularly scheduled meeting times, you can take your learning at your own pace in an asynchronous modality. This is especially helpful to people in radically different time zones; when you’re 12 hours ahead of Ithaca time, you don’t want to be attending lectures in the middle of the night. For people who still need a consistent routine, synchronous classes online work to simulate a traditional classroom setting, with polls and breakout rooms to encourage participation.

So, which method is better? Honestly, it’s hard to say — they both have their merits and downsides. In an in-person lecture, it’s difficult to feel connected to professors and peers when you’re in a room with hundreds of other people. In a setting like that, you might not feel comfortable asking questions. On Zoom, you can see your professor’s face clearly and you can also ask questions very easily by either “raising your hand” or using the chat feature. Meanwhile, breakout rooms serve as a decent alternative to meeting new people and getting to work together on assignments and discussions. Also, if you have an early morning class, it’s a struggle to wake up, get ready, and walk all the way to the lecture hall on time (especially if you love your beauty sleep like me). Zoom allows for some flexibility in that regard, allowing you to learn comfortably in your own bed.

However, Zoom certainly has its fair share of issues. You’ll never have to deal with connectivity issues in an in-person setting; meanwhile, if your Wi-Fi is bad on Zoom, good luck — chances are, you won’t be able to participate well in discussions. Additionally, Zoom is very awkward. Many people display their profile pictures instead of their faces, refuse to talk in breakout rooms, and struggle to mute and/or unmute themselves appropriately. None of that would slide in a traditional classroom setting. Another large problem with online learning is the recent phenomenon that’s largely a byproduct of necessary COVID-19 social distancing: Zoom fatigue. The combination of staring at a computer screen all day while also worrying about your Internet connection and whether or not you look like you’re paying attention results in exhaustion by the end of the day. While I haven’t really experienced this myself (I’m a CS major, so my computer is my life), I’ve heard many of my peers discuss how draining Zoom is and how they can’t wait to communicate in classes face-to-face again.

Although they each have their own issues, in-person learning and online learning are both viable educational options — I can’t really say one is better than the other. Because of this, there should be options for having access to either modality in school districts. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, in-person learning has either been cancelled altogether or significantly modified, and maintaining necessary resources to grant all students an online education is very expensive. Simply put, some school districts might not be able to offer an alternative learning method. This automatically puts some students at a disadvantage since one method might be more effective for them than the other, but they won’t be able to make that choice. With most schools being forced to teach fully online, students who value physical connection with others are struggling to learn well. Personally, as satisfied as I am with Cornell’s online modality, I genuinely miss in-person learning. (I just want to be able to sit in one of Cornell’s lecture halls before my freshman year ends.)

Once COVID-19 has been dealt with, I’m sure online learning will continue to remain prevalent. However, it should remain an alternative to traditional in-person learning instead of becoming the new standard. After all, we all learn in different ways — our education system should reflect that.

Dylan McIntire can be reached at [email protected].