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As the pandemic led colleges and universities to offer most courses remotely, online classes became commonplace by necessity. Now students have more choices as institutions adjust course offerings to increase flexibility and enrollment.

To understand why and how students are deciding between online or in-person options, EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps asked the following questions at seven California colleges and universities:

“In the 2022–23 academic year, approximately 53% of college students were enrolled in at least one online course (according to National Center for Education Statistics data released in January). Are any of your classes online? Which ones? Do you seek them out? Why?””

Below are their responses.(Click on the names or images below to read what each person had to say.)

“I’m not taking any [online classes] this semester, but I took some last semester,” Baker said. “I don’t seek them out at all. I’ve had terrible experiences with online classes. I don’t learn. I slack off. It’s ruined my perception of school.”

“Students need to be engaged,” Baker said. “Like for me, last semester, I took [an online] philosophy class. I care about my grades, so it was a serious class for me. The grades suffered, though, and I had to withdraw and take a W right before the midterm because I knew I was going to fail the class.”

Following this experience, Baker took the class in-person and “did so much better.”

“I feel like you can actually learn in a classroom,” Baker said. “Going to a classroom has so many more layers than just a lecture. You’re interacting with the whole environment. You don’t get that experience online. To me, it’s really frustrating.”

“I’m taking Communications 101 online this semester,” Harris said. Having earlier success with online courses, Harris searched them out again.

“I decided to take an online class because previously, last semester, I took two online classes and I liked them. They were both asynchronous classes, meaning we didn’t have to meet online or have a Zoom call.”

Harris appreciated the flexibility, and “I also liked that the teacher was really accessible through email. You’d send an email and get a response right away.”

“I’m not taking any online classes,” Lopez said. “I have ADHD so I struggle with online classes. You don’t feel very connected with the material you’re learning. I prefer interactive stuff. Online, you feel so disconnected from people.”

Having spoken with others — both neurodivergent and neurotypical students — Lopez said they’ve shared similar experiences. “They also struggle with that same feeling of ‘I can’t connect with the material or the professor.’ It makes it so much harder to actually want to learn.”

Continued Lopez: “I think in-person is what works best for me. I know there are some students who actually prefer remote learning, so it’s good to have the option, but for most students who I’ve interacted with, in-person has been better.”

“I have one class online this semester; it’s computer architecture,” Nguyen said, and it was only offered online. “I prefer in-person classes, but if online is the only choice, I’ll take it,”

Nguyen continued, “The rest of my classes are in-person because I like the human interaction, and it’s a lot more accessible to be able to reach out to my professors.”

“I’m taking three online classes this semester: English 102, Computer Science 116 and Communications 121,” Yaish said.

To determine when to take online versus in-person, Yaish relies on Rate My Professor for guidance. “It depends on the class I’m taking, if I take it online or not. I check the professors on Rate My Professor, and I compare online and in-person (to see) which (method) seems best-suited for what.”

“Honestly, linear algebra and differentials isn’t really offered in person,” Nahi said. While she is a student enrolled at Cal State Fullerton, she takes an online linear algebra course at Orange Coast College.

“It was the only online course that the professor was really student-friendly and accommodating with resources,” she said.

Nahi also added that online courses are better for her as a commuter student who travels to campus multiple times a week. Despite the convenience of remote classes, though, she said she considers online classes as a backup option.

“I drive almost an hour away, so they are pretty convenient,” Nahi said. “I feel like with the in-person learning experience, I grasp a lot, and it’s a lot easier to pass in-person classes for me than online.”

“I’m in one class. It’s an online theater class (THEA 100),” Evans said.

Despite believing that general education courses are convenient and easy to take online, he has only been able to enroll in two online courses so far.

“Most of (the GE classes) I found aren’t online, but honestly, I would rather take those classes online because it’s just easy to get out of the way and you don’t have to go somewhere,” Evans said. “If it’s an actual important class (related to my major), I want that to be in-person or else I don’t really learn.”

I’m not in any online classes right now, but I did last semester,” Ledesma said. “It was an online child and family development course (CFD 135).”

During the summer, when she is not on campus, Ledesma turns to online classes as a last option.

“I feel like it’s just better for me to be in-person with the professor, to be able to ask them questions and to visually see their presentations and lectures,” she said.

“I was online for ethnic studies. It was great, and I had a good time. Attendance was on Zoom and it was a good class,” Castillo said.

However, Castillo believes there are some classes that don’t transfer when taken online. Being a chemistry major, he realizes the limitations of virtual classes.

“It depends on the subject,” Castillo said. “You can’t take a chemistry class online.”

“I took an asynchronous class last quarter — it was an introduction to theater. I liked it online, but I didn’t learn as much,” Filar said.

When it comes to online learning in the past, she has experienced drawbacks.

“(These classes are) easy to forget about. I feel like a mix of online and in-person classes are best,” Filar said.

“I’m in no online classes, but I was last quarter and I absolutely could not stand it,” Uhlik said. “It was just boring, and I did not like the feeling of being in my bed and being in class at the same time.”

Uhlik took an introduction to Latino studies online and she said it didn’t really feel like she was in class.

“I couldn’t really connect with the curriculum or even connect with what the teacher was saying, or even the teacher themselves while being on my laptop,” she said.

While Uhlik dislikes online classes, she does want to take a public speaking class online to easily get that out of the way.

“No, I definitely prefer in-person classes, especially when there are labs associated with the class,” Wilkinson said.

While he’s not in any online classes currently, Wilkinson has had online classes in the past.

“It was harder to pay attention when you’re not in a classroom environment, and your distractions are more easily accessible,” he said.

“I am taking online classes because in-person classes can be held at inconvenient times,” Atef said, adding, “Also, it is sometimes the only option because the professors that are holding in-person classes have bad reviews.”

“Online classes give you the option to work at your own pace, which is nice! I like not having to worry about attending class on time or getting to campus.”

“I took COMS 301 Media Analysis and I took a nursing class over the summer,” Coonen said. “All I can say is, don’t take math classes online. It was the most stressful thing I’ve ever experienced.”

Coonen said that she does not think that online classes should be a requirement because “some people don’t learn that way.”

“I think you have less access to asking direct questions to students and the professor. If you’re waiting for a response, it isn’t immediate,” Coonen said. “When you’re there (in-person), you can ask questions and get that immediate response.”

“I’m not taking any online classes currently, but I took two communications courses two semesters ago. All my classes are in-person this semester,” Murphy said.

He prefers asynchronous classes overall, but the convenience of having an online Zoom class is “always better” than going in-person.

“I’m always seeking them if it’s ever an option,” Murphy said. “I don’t have to drive or leave my house, and it’s totally convenient.”

“I don’t like my online classes because they’re mandatory,” Brew said. “It’s not easy to focus.”

Brew is currently taking an online natural resource management in cultural practices and environmental policy class. Her lectures are three days a week on Zoom, while discussions are once a week in-person. She doesn’t like this format for learning, which she likened to the lack of productivity and engagement experienced in online classes in 2020 due to COVID-19.

Despite mandatory Zoom calls, Brew said, around half of the students still don’t attend lectures and few students participate. The disengaged class often leads to discussion sections that are “dead silent,” which reduces the value of the graduate student-led discussions.

Ultimately, Brew’s experience with her online class this semester is not favorable, and she hopes for her future classes to be entirely in-person.

“I would not take one again unless it was super mandatory or that was my only option,” she said.

“I don’t really like asynchronous or online classes. Yes, it’s convenient for me, but it’s not convenient for my learning,” Chase said. “It’s not conducive to any learning.”

Chase is currently taking a statistics class asynchronously with recorded lectures from Zoom and optional lab sections with a graduate student instructor. He feels these lab sections are helpful, but ultimately wished that his statistics lectures could also be in-person.

Chase doesn’t seek out online classes because he feels the opportunity to ask his professor questions is lost. He said although online lectures have benefits, including being able to rewind, edit and speed up lectures, he ultimately feels that interaction with classmates during lectures is more valuable for his learning.

“Sometimes a few things might slip that I can’t hear the teacher saying that I can’t get back, but I’m willing to sacrifice like a sentence or two for just a general overall interaction,” Chase said.

Despite the downsides of asynchronous learning, Chase does enjoy completing homework and exams online because he feels less pressure and is more comfortable. The flexibility in completing assignments on his own time and in a place of preference is an aspect of online class that Chase appreciates.

Ultimately, he doesn’t prefer online classes because he learns best in an in-person environment. Chase expressed the value in talking to and collaborating with a variety of classmates on problems.

“I get better understanding, especially when I’m mixing with my peers to ask for help. When everyone is separated, there’s no creativity, there’s no new ideas,” Chase said. “When everyone’s together mingling, that’s the spark of new ideas, new creations.”

“I am taking an online math class at the moment. For some subjects, I do (prefer online classes),” Navas said.

“I prefer them for courses that do not heavily pertain to what I am studying or ones that I struggle with more,” Navas added. “It allows me to make my own schedule as I am very busy and can spend more time with the material.”

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I am currently taking two online courses and I don’t really care for them very much. I think depending on the topics it’s hard to learn especially when they are course-heavy classes and require many discussions. Online classes don’t give you many opportunities to speak with the professor especially if their office times are at random times of the day or when I have another class.

The podcast was very informative; I would like to see diversity in opinions and inclusivity of people, as well as pros and cons.

I observed my child taking classes online at both the community college and a CSU, before, during, and after the pandemic.

There are some teachers who have really embraced the format well and some who have not, and the good classes can be really excellent. Some subjects are certainly better suited than others also. My student took a geology course in particular that did a wonderful job of mixing in all kinds of videos, lectures, and … Read More

I observed my child taking classes online at both the community college and a CSU, before, during, and after the pandemic.

There are some teachers who have really embraced the format well and some who have not, and the good classes can be really excellent. Some subjects are certainly better suited than others also. My student took a geology course in particular that did a wonderful job of mixing in all kinds of videos, lectures, and digital activities that probably would not have been as engaging in a classroom.

The primary benefit is accessibility – the chance to fit a class into your schedule that would be otherwise unavailable due to conflicts, or the chance to get to a course without a commute. The addition of recorded lectures and other materials, whether online or in person, allows motivated students to get class material if they are sick or have another emergency, and also provide opportunities for review and rewatching the content.

There are definitely students who learn best in person, probably a majority. But the online classes are probably letting all students graduate faster and are helpful for students who do happen to learn better when they are more in control of their environment. Even if that’s only 20% of students, or if they only take a few classes, it’s a substantial benefit.

What these comments reflect is very positive for online classes. It’s truly a student-centered equity issue. Students should be able to choose what format works best for them. What we can do is ensure that the quality in all formats is exemplary.

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