Remote Rewards

Remote Rewards

To some, education from a distance has its benefits.


Last winter, McCormick second-year Caroline Harms walked from Willard to Tech five days a week. Her 15-minute trek involved cutting through Plex, crossing a parking lot and walking up Sheridan Road before reaching her destination: 11 a.m. Engineering Analysis. Learning remotely, Harms’ commute is now just a few steps across her dorm room, from her bed to her desk.

Despite the numerous drawbacks associated with online learning — technical difficulties, distracting home lives and screen fatigue, to name a few — students like Harms are finding just as many upsides, like the ability to wake up five minutes before class. Athletes can now join Zoom calls from the bus or hotel, making it easier to keep up with course material. What’s more, some students with learning disabilities say their educational experience improves significantly with increased privacy and individual interactions with professors.

During her first year, Harms chose to live on South Campus because of its community feel, but rushing across campus from class to class consumed valuable time in her already-busy engineering major schedule. Though most of her classes took place in Tech, Harms says one was in Harris, which was a stressful walk to make in a short amount of time. Because of the virtual environment this quarter, she says she has used her spare time to get involved in activities she couldn’t enjoy while things were in-person, like editorial positions on the Northwestern Undergraduate Research Journal and Helicon Literary & Arts Magazine.

“I [thought] I physically can't get there at this time, or I have things to do elsewhere on campus,” Harms says. “That's not really a problem anymore.”

Another benefit of the remote learning atmosphere is the ability to review lecture material. Harms says she likes “the idea of recorded lectures,” as she can return to concepts if her mind wanders the first time they are presented.

During the pandemic, some of her professors even recorded office hours, which she says helps especially when there are time constraints preventing her from attending.

SESP second-year Olivia Haskins plays volleyball for Northwestern. She also says the virtual environment gives her greater academic accessibility, especially during season, when the team is often on the road. Haskins recalled feeling rushed last winter going from practice to her dorm then to class. She says virtual classes are “a time saver” this winter, as her team travels every other weekend.

Additionally, Haskins says she appreciates asynchronous classes for the flexibility they offer. This winter, she enrolled in Anthropology 201, which she wouldn’t have been able to take in an in-person environment.

“Having asynchronous classes has been really cool because there’s a lot of classes that are only taught in the morning that I usually can't take with practice,” Haskins says. “But now, a lot of them are asynchronous, so I can still take the class. I don’t have to worry about missing the classroom or missing practice. I can just do them whenever I want.”

Increased flexibility is especially important for students with learning differences, including Weinberg first- year Nia Robles. They have also enjoyed access to recorded lectures, which allow them to take class when their attention is most focused.

“[As] a person who has difficulties with language and attention, being able to rewatch things is something that I found extremely helpful,” Robles says.

Additionally, Robles says the remote learning environment is more conducive to navigating an anxiety disorder. They say Zoom classes can allow for increased privacy during their most difficult classes.

“I think everyone has those classes [where] you’re like, ‘Why am I here?’ that make you feel less worthy,” Robles says. “Because that can trigger anxiety, many people have a new opportunity to be able to turn off your camera.”

During a panic attack, Robles turns off their computer camera and takes a moment to get a drink of water and breathe before reengaging with the class. Even communicating with professors about anxiety can be easier with remote learning, they say. At in-person office hours, another student might be able to overhear a conversation taking place. The privacy of a Zoom room chat takes away that concern.

“Sometimes you want privacy,” Robles says. “You want the privacy to tell a professor, ‘I’m struggling with this.’”

When moving back to in-person classes, Robles hopes to carry these aspects of the remote environment with them.

Jim Stachowiak, Director of Assistive Technology and Assistant Director of Accessible NU, says a lot can be learned from the time college students spend learning remotely.

“I haven’t talked to anybody who says that they necessarily like remote learning,” Stachowiak says. “But the positive aspects of remote learning and the biggest positive we’ve seen... is more flexibility.”

Throughout the last year, Accessible NU has continued its mission of supporting and empowering students with disabilities and ensuring equal access to full participation in the academic environment. Stachowiak says some aspects of the virtual learning environment have helped students continue to receive the accommodations they need. Online, it’s still easy to allow for extra time on exams and flexible deadlines. Relaxed attendance policies, for example, help those with flexible attendance accommodations.

“I haven’t talked to anybody who says that they necessarily like remote learning ... the biggest positive we’ve seen... is more flexibility.”

Jim Stachowiak, Director of Assistive Technology and Assistant Director of Accessible NU

At the beginning of the pandemic, Stachowiak served on a team that taught Foundations of Online Teaching to over 700 Northwestern professors. The course emphasized one of Accessible NU’s key values, regardless of the learning environment, called Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

“[UDL] is really about identifying barriers that exist for everyone, not just disabilities, and removing them by providing options to learning,” Stachowiak says.

According to Stachowiak, the pandemic has made professors more aware of many barriers that exist for students. For example, providing captions in videos eliminates barriers for the hearing impaired and students for whom English is a second language. Stachowiak says remote learning has opened up people’s eyes to UDL and the ways in-person classrooms can be more accessible to all students, regardless of ability.

“When we taught instructors about this in Foundations of Online Teaching, we were constantly pushing these concepts can still apply when we come back into the classroom setting,” Stachowiak says.

He believes that remote learning has also pushed digital accessibility to the forefront of the public’s attention. With nearly all classes and activities taking place online, everyone in the community must be provided with digital access to material. When most people are engaging with the online environment, the need for equal availability of resources becomes clear.

“We can make little adjustments to certain areas that can benefit lots of different groups,” Stachowiak says. “[Adjustments that can] benefit people with different learning styles, that can benefit people with different ability levels [and] that can benefit people from different cultural backgrounds, just by making some minor shifts in how we provide information and how we allow students to express what they learn.”