College Students Rely on the Internet to Make the Best of a Virtual Semester

A female college student attends an online class from her couch.

In 2020, the “college” experienced looked very different than what most students expected. There were no large lecture halls filled with learners or late-night study groups in the library. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic forced almost all colleges and university to adopt remote or hybrid learning models – with students taking classes from laptops in their dorm rooms, or their family’s home.

We spoke with a group of students – all with vastly different college experiences now dominated by almost a year of distance learning. The one thing that everyone could agree on? That technology and broadband have played a key role in keeping their education going.

“Having a capable laptop and a reliable internet connection is vital to continuing my education remotely,” says Samuel Johnson, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Video Turns Classrooms Virtual

Video-conferencing technology has been at the core of making distance learning work. This technology allowed classrooms to become virtual, bringing together large groups for online lectures, and enabling screenshares to help students master content from afar. Every student we spoke to had incorporated video sessions into their education – some in surprising ways!

For Hallie Stravitz, a junior at the University of Maryland, video-conferencing technology has helped her stay in touch with both mentors and peers outside of class. “My professors all hold [extra] Zoom meetings so that we can have contact with them and other students,” she says. This has been particularly helpful to Stravitz and her classmates because, in the school’s distance learning model, a majority of her professors do not introduce new topics online. Instead, students are expected to watch recordings and then come to synchronous sessions prepared with questions.

Flexibility to Fit Learning into Life

Remote- and- hybrid education models have come with unexpected rewards, particular for students who have had to take on additional responsibilities or jobs to help their family financially. “Professors and administrators understand that this is a difficult time and have offered more flexibility in programs and classes.” says Zachary Holmes, a sophomore at the University of Oregon. For Holmes, a number of his core courses were changed to a pass/fail grading system. “This has allowed me to put more effort into my major classes without jeopardizing my GPA,” he says.

In other parts of the country, distance learning partnerships have allowed students who left school for family or financial reasons to re-start their education. In Houston, Texas, a student in his early 50’s had just enrolled in a program at Lone Star College to finish his degree. The college’s quick pivot to online classes and additional support from Comcast to finance students’ home connections meant that he would not need to interrupt his education a second time. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a single mother who had withdrawn from her nursing program to care for her two boys was able to re-enroll online and finish her degree. Her education took-off again when local internet service provider, Cox Communications, partnered with a group of City and community partners to connect low-income students.

A Focus on Physical Fitness

In addition, the flexibility of remote and hybrid schedules has allowed college students to achieve a balance they may have not enjoyed before the pandemic. Many are focusing more on their health and fitness, or spending time outdoors. “Because I don’t spend any time going to and from campus or eating in the dining halls, I have a greater amount of time to go for walks, ride my bike, or go for a run,” Johnson explains.

Stravitz, who stayed home for the semester, agrees. “Being at home afforded me greater flexibility in terms of healthy eating and exercising,” she points out. “It has allowed me greater control over how I spend my time, which has led to a more balanced lifestyle overall.”

The Investments That Made “Virtual” College Possible

A number of investments in broadband networks and program have empowered millions of students to continue their education remotely. “We wouldn’t have been able to do any of this just 10 or 20 years ago because we wouldn’t have had the technology to make it possible,” notes Sydney Yakowenko, a senior at Penn State University who took the quarantine and stay-home orders very seriously. “This is encouraging because we are able to be safe while learning and not halt our timeline of school or careers.”

Notably, the significant investments that internet providers have made in the network infrastructure resulted in widespread access to the speeds and reliability needed for video-conferencing and other types of online work. Thanks to these investments, the networks have also handled drastic increases in internet usage throughout the pandemic.

In addition, distance learning partnerships like those in Houston, Texas and Tulsa, Oklahoma have connected millions of low-income students across the country who did not have a broadband connection at home prior to the pandemic. These partnerships enabled internet providers to expand programs that had been in place for over a decade and, in many instances, CARES Act funding allowed school districts cover the costs of service.

What Comes Next for Students?

From moving back home with parents to coping with hours in front of a screen, virtual learning has still been a challenge for many of the students we spoke to. While they are leveraging technology to continue learning, they recognize that there are many other factors at play that will need to be addressed as the pandemic continues.

The Beyond community is actively working to advocate for these students, encouraging more widespread adoption of successful distance learning partnerships and calling for solutions that expand broadband access to every rural community in America.