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In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all had to make some serious changes to the way we learn, work, and live. I’m lucky to be a student of the University of Minnesota, which transitioned quickly to a fully remote model as the pandemic spread. This fall, the university is offering both in-person and remote instruction, with in-person instruction following all public health guidelines. But I’m leaning toward remaining remote.

Online classes have opened my mind to the possibilities of the future of education. Though the pandemic has been devastating, it has also forced people like me to see the world in a new perspective. And I know other students, educators, and administrators are applying this perspective to their situations as well. Now is the perfect time to reimagine what education is, and what it can be—so I thought I’d share some of the most important takeaways I’ve gleaned from my recent experiences with online learning.

Engagement Is Key

I’ve had experiences learning in traditional classroom settings, in online classrooms, and with online tutorials. And in every situation, the most important factor for both my interest and my performance was probably “engagement.” When I felt genuinely engaged with the course material, and with the people around me, I did better, regardless of surroundings.

For example, in high school, I had plenty of in-person, traditional classroom experiences where the teacher wasn’t particularly involved with his students. There weren’t opportunities to discuss, ask questions, or direct the course in new ways. But at UMN, in both online and traditional settings, I’ve found myself very engaged with the course material—and I’ve learned more as a result. Learning online doesn’t restrict the ability for students to engage; it just requires adjustments on both sides.

Individuals Are More Important Than Institutions

In a similar vein, I’ve learned that individuals are more important than institutions, overall. I’m happy with the infrastructure and online learning tools available from the University of Minnesota, but when I think about my favorite learning experiences, they’re all tied to individual professors (and students) who went out of their way to help me or to make their courses seem interesting.

In online classes, this is especially apparent, since I’ve also attempted to learn from online resources that offered little to no personal guidance.

Flexibility Makes Education Accessible

In talking to other students, I’m convinced that the flexibility of remote education has made education accessible to people who would otherwise struggle with a traditional model. People working full-time jobs no longer have to rush to get to a specific classroom on time. New parents can stay at home with their children while attending lectures.

When used in combination with flexible degree paths that don’t have to be completed in a specific number of semesters, this could open doors to people who have felt unable to get a secondary education.

Costs Are Questionable

Since we’re dealing with a major student debt crisis, many people are asking whether college is “worth it,” so much so that it’s become a tired cliché. The bottom line is that college is worth the money, in almost every situation; people who attend college end up with better career paths, higher earnings, and brighter overall futures.

However, the individual costs associated with learning are being called into question. Can universities cut costs by offering remote options when they’re most applicable? Is it possible for students with limited funds to get an education without paying for resources they aren’t going to need? We should all work to be more cognizant of each dollar spent on education, from both an administrative and student side of the equation.

Everyone Learns Differently

No two individuals learn exactly the same way. Many people are thriving with remote classes, but I also know at least a few people who are struggling with them. Personally, I always feel more confident in a subject when I have a visual aid to help my intuition, but other people are more linguistically inclined.

Whatever model universities adapt to in the future, I hope it’s flexible, with as many options as possible. It’s imperative to give students the best individualized experiences we can.

While I certainly hope the COVID-19 pandemic is over as soon as humanly possible, I’m hopeful that educational institutions all over the country use this as an opportunity to reflect on their offerings and build more remote opportunities into their infrastructure. I’m not entirely convinced that remote learning is strictly better than in-person learning, or that we should do away with in-person learning, but I know the “first principles” of education can be achieved in almost any format. At the University of Minnesota, I’m grateful to get the best of all worlds.

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