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When the small engineering college where I teach went online at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt like I was losing the best part of my job. I enjoy learning about my subject, I like research and I am eager to engage in service for my school; however, what I really love is seeing my students. When we turned to 100 percent remote engagement, I felt like the best part of my job had been taken away from me and wondered how my students could possibly learn and thrive in the same way they had been when we were face-to-face. However, as I spend more time in the online learning space, I find myself wondering: Are online classes actually better?

Online Classes Can Promote Empathy

The circumstances of this pandemic have made me particularly compassionate. The flexibility of online classes have allowed me to make myself available to my students in the evenings when they are actively working on assignments and need me most. In some instances, when it is late, I can lead by example and demonstrate my commitment to mental health and a work-life balance. “This is not so important that you should lose sleep over it” is something I regularly say. I have noticed that no one takes advantage of me.

Online learning gives me an opportunity to be less rigid, and my students are grateful. By glimpsing into their stressful evenings, I am more understanding and gain empathy for their experience. This works in the other direction as well. My evening meetings often take place over video chat while I sit holding my toddler. I believe that this helps my students see me as a real person with a life outside school. The remote experience facilitates compassion and empathy on both ends.

Online Classes Allow for Asynchronous Pacing

My online classes follow a self-paced model. In the current climate, I understand that my students might have a period of reduced engagement, and I have planned for it. My classes allow students to pace themselves through most of the quarter, and if their progress is interrupted for a period, it is still possible for them to complete the course and to do well. This would not have been possible in the face-to-face version of this course.

Online Classes Liberate Us From the Constraints of a Weekly Calendar

I am no longer constrained by the class time allotted to me by the registrar, and so I have the liberty to structure my course according to the natural breaks in the content. My content is now bundled by topic rather than by week. In many ways this is much better. Why add an extra assignment, an extra homework or an extra lecture just because I need to fill time, when I could allow the students to use that opportunity to catch up and really immerse themselves in the content?

Online Classes Lower the Barrier to Entry for Students Who Struggle to Seek Help

At my college, we pride ourselves on providing individualized attention and being readily available to our students. We boast an “open office door policy” and know the names of all our students. The reality is, however, that the individualized attention is usually only provided to the students who seek it. To some students, walking into my office is prohibitive. With online learning, I am able apply the mission of individualized attention and support to every single student. The versatility of the digital format provides easier access to an open line of communication at a level that is comfortable to the particular student. I regularly check in with every single student using a simple chat message and offer the option of a video chat to those who feel comfortable.

Online Classes Provide Improved Access to Course Materials

With posted videos, worksheets and supplemental resources, students can revisit topics repeatedly until they achieve mastery. With faculty pouring countless hours into developing high-quality online course materials, it is likely that the students will find particularly focused and carefully constructed content delivered through a variety of communication modes. My own course includes both videos and instruction packets that contain the same information but allows for students to access information in a variety of ways.

Perhaps Online Courses Are Actually Better

This pandemic has allowed us to harness the tool that is online learning to engage every single student, better assess learning outcomes and potentially produce the best crop of engineers that we have yet.

Emily Dosmar is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., and a mom to 18-month-old, Eleanor.

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