Our Hopes: Returning From Online Classes

This semester we are returning to Olin in-person, after two and a half semesters of classes online or a hybrid of online and in-person. Olin classes typically involve building things, using tools, and lots of teamwork.While many classes had extremely creative solutions for moving their content online, things were undoubtedly different. At the end of the summer, I interviewed several current juniors and seniors about their experience with online classes, and what their hopes are as we go into an in-person fall semester.

While students had widely varying experiences with different parts of their online classes, everyone I talked to said that the experience was overwhelmingly lonely. “It did feel lonely and isolating at times… you’d run into those moments where you’re like, ‘Oh, I am sitting alone in my room, scribbling on a piece of paper, hunched over my bed.’” one student said. Multiple students said it was “harder to check up on people,” and that they felt less connected with their teammates than they had during in-person semesters.

While everyone experienced loneliness, students had different experiences with other aspects of online learning. While for one student professors seemed inaccessible and writing an email felt overwhelming, another said it was easy to find time to talk to professors because they only had to write an email and set up a Zoom call. The Zoom chat was especially polarizing: some people found it overwhelming and distracting, some felt more engaged using it, others really enjoyed having a “backchannel” to share links, and others only liked it as a place to type a brief check-in. A few students said that assignments and due dates were more well-documented and easier to keep track of than they’d been in-person, while others felt like the wide variety of online tools being used–Canvas, Slack, Discord, and custom class websites, to name a few–made things more confusing.

At the end of each conversation, I asked students what their hopes were for this semester. Here are some of their responses:

  • “I am super excited to be back on campus! I just really want to be around people again, I’m very excited to work in teams and in groups, and in the AC–or the MAC is what it’s now called”
  • “I hope I can maintain relationships without being in the same space as a person”
  • “I want to share my stupid ideas with people more”
  • “I hope that I can still find assignments online if I miss them”
  • “I’m really excited to have more space, like, not be confined to a single bedroom”
  • “I don’t think my priorities have changed that much, but I have a better idea of how to attack them now”
  • “I want to talk to professors more”
  • “I… do not know, right now, because I’m just expecting things to be difficult, and… I just hope to be able to stay afloat, in whatever way I can”
  • “I want to focus more on activism, and ethics in engineering and everything you do”
  • “I’m really hoping for a dynaming of rebuilding community that is patient. I hope that people share with one another and that we maintain this compassion that we built in zoom land, understanding that just because we’re back in person now doesn’t mean people’s lives are dramatically easier”
  • “I want ‘normal plus plus’”

Although we’re already two weeks into the semester, much still feels uncertain. What are your own hopes for this semester? I hope that as we continue to settle into a kind of routine, we can support each other and ourselves in achieving these hopes as best we can.

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