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Opinion: Class numbers dwindle as college students struggle with online learning

Not all college students are able to get online classes to work for them after Georgia public campuses closed last month and rebooted with distance learning.
Not all college students are able to get online classes to work for them after Georgia public campuses closed last month and rebooted with distance learning.

Credit: Jamie Lee Finch

Credit: Jamie Lee Finch

Coronavirus pandemic is testing much more than their study skills

Three weeks ago, I invited Rick Diguette,  a writer and part-time English instructor at Georgia State University's Perimeter College, to write a guest column on why he was so confident he and his colleagues were up to the task of moving instruction online in the wake of campus closures.

A lot has changed in that time. There were 99 confirmed cases of the coronavirus when Diguette's piece appeared. Tonight, there are 9,156 cases and 350 deaths. And the state is much more aggressive in its efforts to limit movement and contact.

The University System of Georgia migrated 40,000 classes online, and, if student accounts are accurate, with varying degrees of success. Many parents of Georgia college students are sharing their children’s experiences in Facebook groups, and there are many mentions of tears.

Diguette returns today with a follow-up that many of you will find sobering.

By Rick Diguette

A few weeks ago I argued here in the AJC Get Schooled blog that faculty at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College “can provide students with the instruction they need online just as well as they could when delivering instruction face-to-face.” Now that we are a week and half into finishing spring semester online, I am back to provide an update.

One thing now seems clear: some Perimeter College students either can’t or won’t return to complete the semester. Despite the university’s best efforts during the extended spring break to anticipate and address potential technology issues, some students may not have a PC, laptop, or tablet they can use at home. Others may have the hardware but lack a reliable Internet connection.

In addition to trying to anticipate and address technology issues, the university also liberalized its withdrawal policy. Even though classes end April 24, students have until April 17 to withdraw from as many as two classes and receive a W for a grade. They must consult with an advisor before doing that, but it’s an option.

This policy change is important for two reasons. First, a W is not factored into the student’s GPA. Just as important, should students decide to withdraw from two classes, those withdrawals “will be exempt from the institutional W limit of six in a student’s academic career.”

Rick Diguette 
Rick Diguette 

Prior to spring break, I still had 14 active students in my first-year composition class. That number has now shrunk to 10. I will be surprised if every one of those students successfully makes it to the finish line. Already I can tell that a few of them are struggling with the instructional format, and that was my greatest fear from the outset.

I am hoping for the best for all Perimeter College students. Although they knew they would have tests to take this semester, they didn’t plan on a life-changing event like the coronavirus pandemic that is testing much more than their study skills. Let’s hope their experience this semester is instructive in ways not always associated with the classroom.

One thing I hope they will all learn is that their health is a precious possession. They may also learn that they are resilient, which is a valuable strength most people don’t develop until they are tested by adversity. Because if they can get through something like this, they can probably to get through just about anything else life might throw their way.

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