We all know Zoom—perhaps a little better than any of us would like to. Since the beginning of the COVID–pandemic, this platform has become as essential to the Penn academic experience as the writing seminar requirement and the ever tedious Two-Step Verification to open PennInTouch. Even for our Spring 2021 semester, almost all undergraduate courses were taught virtually—with the small exception of clinical and in–person research opportunities required for select degrees.
However, on June 23, 2021, President, Amy Gutmann; Provost, Wendell Pritchett; Deputy Provost, Beth Winkelstein; and Senior Executive Vice President, Craig Carnaroli, released an announcement that students can anticipate a fully reopened fall semester. As of now, fully vaccinated members of the Penn community are not required to wear a mask, physically distance, or participate in weekly COVID testing.
After roughly 15 months of COVID–related restrictions, the University will attempt to support all in–person courses this fall. As we near the end of an entirely virtual learning experience, many Penn students have taken advantage of what might be the last chance for online learning by enrolling in the university’s—or other, often cheaper, institutions'—summer courses.
This summer, Penn has offered two sessions of summer learning with over 100 courses to choose from. Many Penn students typically opt to enroll in these courses because they provide an opportunity to jump ahead in their studies, or to catch up if they're feeling behind on requirements. But this year, there is another factor that has influenced students' decision to take summer courses: the very fact that they are being conducted virtually.
As we venture back into an in–person world, it is worthwhile to reflect on the advantages of virtual learning, especially in the context of summer learning at Penn. Considering the convenience and accessibility of online classes, should Penn continue to find ways to provide virtual academic opportunities?
Farah Sayed (C’23) enrolled in CHEM 241, the first part of organic chemistry, during Penn’s first summer session from her home in Cleveland, Ohio. The virtual nature of the course played a big role in this decision. Farah explains that she likely wouldn’t have enrolled in the course had it been offered only in–person. “I would be going to Philly just for that one class. There wouldn’t be any other thing drawing me there because all my other commitments are either virtual or at home," she says. The flexibility of this virtual course allowed her to be in Cleveland with her family and volunteer locally, all while getting ahead in her pre–med courses.
Like Farah, Sarah Ebell (C’23) took ECON 103 during Penn’s first summer session also from the comfort of her home—in Cape Town, South Africa. This was her second summer participating in a virtual course from home. Sarah also notes that she probably wouldn’t have participated in summer academic opportunities had they required her to be in Philly, especially considering she is an international student. “I wouldn’t want to stay in Philly in the summer just because for me I only get to go home once or twice a year, and the summer is obviously the best time to go home.”
Obviously, there are challenges to virtual learning that incentivize Penn to return solely in person, even in the summer.
In this online world, academic dishonesty at Penn increased significantly. Cheating Case Investigations reported by The Office of Student Conduct in their FY 2020 Annual Disciplinary Report increased 72% from the 2018–2019 to 2019–2020 academic year. As such, many professors changed their assessment policies to account for this unprecedented advantage.
But these syllabi alterations have ironically been helpful and stress–relieving for many students, since many professors have been expecting and even encouraging students to use class notes and outside resources for assignments and assessments.
The assessments for Summer Session 1 CHEM 241 allowed students to look at class notes, which Farah emphasizes actually enhanced the learning experience. “You really focus on understanding the material instead of just cramming it in your brain," she explains. Consequently, going back to memorization and closed–book exams feels daunting to many students. And, undoubtedly, this stress during the summer, a time for rest and relaxation, is particularly unwanted.
Another difficulty of virtual courses is accommodating different time–zones for non–East–coast students, which can be a hassle to coordinate. Though Sarah had her concerns this summer about the time zones difference, she notes that there was only a minor issue for her: some of ECON 103’s office hours were held at difficult times. The lectures themselves were recorded and could be watched at any time. Even so, Sarah’s “very reachable” professor “always had alternative options” to any unattendable office hours.
The social element of in–person learning is another fundamental element to consider when weighing the pros and cons of virtual learning, especially because of its influence on the mental health of our student body. In Penn’s Fall COVID-19 Check-In, more than 80% of the undergraduate participants said they had felt nervous, anxious, or on edge for at least several days over the past two weeks. It’s been proven that an increase in social interactions, like providing in-person classes, will improve the mental health of many people on campus. In–person learning will be incredibly helpful especially for our community that is notorious for poor mental health policies.
It's nice to know that this is a motivating factor for Penn to want to return to in–person courses. When considering the long fall and spring semesters, the social factor is indeed an essential part of the Penn experience. But the summer sessions are only six weeks relative to an entire semester. As Farah explains, “It would have been nice to really interact with people, but at the same time it’s only six weeks [and] I felt like my focus was really just on the course itself.”
Sarah agrees, citing numerous circumstances where this flexible learning dynamic is helpful, especially for students who have summer jobs. “I know quite a few of my friends currently also have internships but they are doing classes," she explains. "A lot of people I know have recently decided their major and had to actually take some classes. My one friend had to take ECON 001 and 002 together and she lives in Istanbul so it’s so nice for her to be able to go home and take the classes.”
This experience isn't unique to Sarah and her friend—Penn students are often given work opportunities outside of Philly during the summer.
All things considered, as we start to revert back to an in–person Penn experience, our resumption of "normal" learning shouldn't necessarily mean that Penn—and other academic institutions—should necessarily abandon a virtual learning format entirely. In fact, it might be advantageous for Penn to continue providing virtual opportunities for students, especially over the summer. As Farah explains, "It gives students flexibility for where they’re located geographically [to] not be restricted by [having to be] physically on campus.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as eager to be sitting in a lecture hall as you. But if Penn were to create some hybrid summer experience—or even provide an option for virtual learning year–round—it might allow students a more accommodating way to advance their education without compromising any of the other needs they may have. At the end of the day, though the Penn experience is undeniably shaped by being physically at Penn, receiving a Penn education should be accessible to all Quakers. Having the option to take courses virtually might help ensure that this truth stays a reality.