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Confessions of an online student

(Photo courtesy of: Champlain College Online) “Online school offers a completely different view of college.”

Elsie Netherton
Connector Contributor

My name is Elsie Netherton, and I am a graduating senior here at UMass Lowell. Since 2020, I have only taken online courses, mostly in English, for a variety of reasons. In the beginning, classes were not offered in person due to the pandemic, but after moving to Minnesota to be with my partner, I couldn’t have shown up to class even if I wanted to. In total, I have 20 UMass Lowell online classes under my belt, and several more from other programs. In this brief article, I want to reflect on some of the difficulties in being an online student, share some of the tricks I have learned, and shed some light on this hidden half of our school. Online school presents unique challenges that may help prepare us for the ever-changing world of post-COVID capitalism, but it’s not for everyone, and it comes at the cost of the typical college experience.

Several of my friends went the software development route in school and have ended up working remotely for companies. Another friend is an online therapist, and I have been working online for a non-profit to help new immigrants and refugees learn English. Undoubtedly the skillsets for online school and online work overlap, especially with regards to technological fluency. Understanding how to use Zoom, Outlook, Teams, and all the other online productivity staples is essential in today’s post-pandemic world, and online school does a good job of honing those skills.

Unfortunately, many students may find online school to be difficult, not for the content of the class, but for the medium in which the material is presented. Motivating oneself is immensely challenging for many students, even when the classes are in person and you have a good relationship with the professor, but when everything is online, it can feel impossible to get anything done. There isn’t really an easy fix for this, and I certainly don’t have it all figured out. When speaking with friends who work online for a living, they expressed similar struggles with motivation. It would seem the human brain isn’t actually designed to spend copious amounts of time trying to pay attention on Zoom.

So, if it’s hard to pay attention on Zoom, is it easier to make friends? The answer almost certainly won’t surprise you. According to former online student and Connector editor-in-chief Riley Fontana, online school, “was the most isolating thing ever,” and I couldn’t agree more. There is a certain level of superficial interaction expected in many online classes, especially in the Discussion Boards that can at times feel worse than silence. Some good discussion is had, but many students contribute the bare minimum to the assigned discussion and otherwise do not engage. In order to make connections outside of designated discussion forums, Riley Fontana says, “Don’t be afraid to go on zoom and message someone directly to become friends”. It may sound scary, but there’s no chance for connection unless you put yourself out there. You can’t rely on someone else making the first move, so if you want to make a friend, you must take some risks!

In my opinion, students who are fresh out of high school, and are looking for a typical college experience, will likely be disappointed and turned off by the challenges of studying online. It is very difficult to make friends with students or professors, and the coursework is extra

challenging as you will have very little motivation to complete it. However, the flexibility of online school is a major asset, and should not be overlooked. Students who work, have families, and have already made friends in their local spaces may find online school to be a vital tool on their journey towards graduation and professional development. Its not a perfect system, and there is lots of room for improvement, but ultimately, having more options for education is never going to be a bad thing.

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