The COVID-19 pandemic sent students home and forced the University of Oregon to teach spring term exclusively online. And as I started that term staring at the bright, white computer screen, I wondered how this model, especially for institutions of so-called “higher-learning,” was sustainable. There were no discussions, virtually no communication from other students and no disclaimer that came straight from UO. I had to navigate this new feeling of isolation while trying to keep up with my classes.
The use of social skills at school creates a sense of community while building the foundation for self-discovery. Our social relationships equip us with the emotional support we need to adjust to demanding life events. These relationships help us foster trust and understanding between individuals and ourselves. The shock of extreme quarantine quickly affected our mental health. Depression and anxiety levels rose while active tasks, such as processing and retaining information, became more difficult as the days went by.
Our personal communication was replaced by computer-mediated dialogue. Connections made with professors or in extracurricular activities no longer existed. Overnight, college changed from an engaging academic experience into the isolated study of a concentrated field. People either tried to keep up with the new curriculum or their frustrations kept them from continuing.
Students are about to start this academic year with a predetermined mindset that’s been shaped by the isolation of online learning. The social consequences are magnified due to the steep decline of communication within the online educational community. A poll on Niche.com, conducted in January 2020, looked at how often students chose to learn on campus versus online-only: 85% said on campus, 15% said a mix of online and on campus, while only 1% said they learned solely online. Physically being in class allowed students to connect and network with the community. It also yielded better access to information and allowed for increased attention through subtle communication tools, like body language and tone of voice.
And while jobs continue to search for candidates with experience, passion and fine tuned communication and social skills ─ everything online learning is preventing us from developing ─ UO keeps pushing their hopeful narrative that returning to in-person school will happen this fall ─ even though all socio-political signs point to the opposite. Of course, it’s not the University’s fault school has been switched to an online platform. There’s a need to follow all social distancing measures. However, the University can and should be honest about the disadvantages that come with online schooling.
Meanwhile, the question of addressing the adverse effects of online learning is left unanswered. Students long for that feeling of community, but until President Michael Schill decides to talk about specific ways to engage students in school and in our community, it’s up to the students themselves to figure out how to connect with their peers and teachers. Message a random student to ask if they want to study, try to Zoom with your professor at least once and increase your FaceTime dates with those who support you. Because without those social interactions, our mental health will continue to suffer and our coveted “college experience” will quickly become that bright, white screen I found myself staring at all spring long.