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Did Some Students Benefit from the Switch to Remote Learning?

July 7, 2020

Actually, yes. Some university students enjoyed unexpected benefits from the sudden shift to remote learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic last spring semester. International students, students with disabilities, and students who are caregivers adapted to online learning surprisingly well—and a certain percentage of those students preferred it. Here’s why.

International Students Report Higher Levels of Satisfaction

A new study conducted by the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium, which surveyed 22,519 undergraduate students and 7,690 graduate and professional students at five public research universities, finds that international students were more satisfied overall than domestic students. International students reported “higher levels of satisfaction with the support they received from their instructors to successfully learn online, higher levels of satisfaction with the overall quality of their courses that were moved online, and higher levels of satisfaction with their university’s overall response to the pandemic,” the survey states.

Jun Wang, a CU Denver student from China earning her doctoral degree in civil engineering, said she felt supported by professors: “During the [pandemic/remote learning] time, I received tons of online resources to guide me how to get through this challenging period and at the same time manage my academic work.”

Meti Merdasa, a graduate of the ESL Academy LynxDirect Program, was able to continue her studies after leaving Denver to return to her home country of Ethiopia. Now majoring in international business, Meti is happy to continue at CU Denver. “Currently, I am taking summer classes while I am home and staying safe with my family. This is a great benefit to me to not waste my time, and also to continue my higher education program,” she said. 

Her one difficulty is the time difference, something that many international students cited as an issue in the SERU survey. Because of time differences, international students had difficulty attending class during scheduled meeting times. The SERU report proposed that universities and professors “should be mindful of this subpopulation and offer accommodations or asynchronous alternatives, where possible.”

Reduced Stress for Students with Disabilities

Some students with disabilities also experienced positive outcomes with the shift to remote learning. The pros of online learning for this student group remain the same as in pre-pandemic education. Students with limited mobility don’t need to worry about getting to and from class. Students with psychological or psychiatric disabilities, notably those with anxiety or post-traumatic stress (including military and veteran students), don’t need to worry about interacting with peers or being in public. 

According to a 2018 U.S. News & World Report article about the pros and cons of online learning for students with disabilities, students with learning disabilities also benefit: “Online programs also free students with learning disabilities like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD; dyslexia; visual processing disorder; or dysgraphia from the time pressure, stress and aural or visual overstimulus and distractions of the traditional classroom.”

Caregiver Students Get Some Time Back

The shift from on-site classes to remote classes proved to be helpful for some students who are caring for children or family members. A 2018 article titled “A Look at the Data: How Caregiver Students Fare in Higher Education” summarizes the facts about student caregivers and the challenges they face. Caregiver students, defined as students who have dependents, are more likely to be Black, to be women, and to work full time while enrolled in college. All of these traits mean caregiver students have less time to commute, attend class, and study.

But the switch to remote learning that happened last spring gave caregiver students something they needed—more time. University students who are also caring for children, dependents, family members, or others while trying to earn a degree have to balance their needs with the needs of those they care for. The elimination of a commute, for instance, might help them have more time to take care of all their responsibilities.

It’s too soon to tell how the pandemic-related shift to remote learning will affect higher education in general, but some data points to unexpected benefits for certain student groups. This gives administrators, faculty, and students themselves an opportunity to discuss what all students need, including student populations that sometimes don’t get the attention they deserve.