The demand for online classes increases in the post-pandemic world.

Illustration by Shemar DeBellotte

As we rapidly approach the first COVID-19 lockdown’s fourth anniversary, life in Atlanta seems to have returned to normalcy. Urban centers, supermarkets, and sports stadiums have regained the foot traffic they lost during those six months in early-to-mid 2020. The US economy, which seemed destined for a recession, has recovered significantly. Despite low consumer sentiment, the US presents robust GDP growth and easing inflation. The Labor Market has drastically improved, with the unemployment rate down to 3.7% as of December 2023.

Georgia State’s Atlanta Campus no longer resembles the ghost town it did in Spring 2020, with boundless foot traffic and student presence in the Recreation Center, Campus Green, and the dorms. However, there is one arena where pre-COVID normalcy has not resurfaced; classrooms. Although there is an increased number of in-person classes currently offered, demand for online asynchronous learning has remained high, forcing departments to adjust.

As a result, universities are searching for ways to strike a balance between in-person and online courses. The pandemic’s initial months accelerated the increased availability of online learning, a phenomenon that sustained itself into the latter half of 2020 and the following years.

According to data from The National Center for Education Statistics, 75% of students took at least one online class in 2020, and 61% did so in 2021. Meanwhile, 44% of students maintained an online-only schedule in 2020, and 28% of students did the same in 2021. While the 2021 numbers were lower than those posted in the year before, they still marked growth from pre-pandemic figures, illustrating the sustained demand for online instruction.

There is some concern about the efficacy of online instruction, whether asynchronous or not. A 2021 study conducted into online instruction during the pandemic found that 2020’s sudden switch to online instruction hurt student learning.

While analyzing seven mid-level economics courses across seven institutions researchers found that assessment scores declined. They found that student characteristics, such as gender, race, and first-generation status had no impact on learning outcomes. However, the co-authors found that course instructors with prior online teaching experience and those who encouraged student participation through small group activities were able to mitigate the negative outcomes. This observation bodes well for the future of online learning. As instructors become more experienced with the medium, learning outcomes should improve. Unfortunately, it is uncertain if online learning results will ever compare to or supersede in-person instruction.

Georgia State University is uniquely situated within this struggle. According to U.S. News, 82% of GSU students live away from college-owned, operated or affiliated housing. The student body, a majority of which are commuter students, might prefer online instruction due to its flexibility. Online instruction shields students from the stressors often associated with commuting. Online students can complete assignments and pick up extra shifts with the time they would have otherwise spent commuting to and from campus.

Hannah Sistrat, a third-year Pre-Med commuter student from Conyers, stated that she prefers to take online classes for their convenience.

“Other than my labs that have to be in-person and some social science classes I enjoy, I just prefer to take everything online,” she commented. “It’s easier.”

Certain academic departments are beginning to feel the pressures of student demand, explained Dr. Amy Steigerwalt, the Chair of Georgia State’s Department of Political Science.

“Post-pandemic, many students still desire online courses. We were also asked by the Provost to create a fully online BA program that we must accommodate,” she stated.

The department is now experimenting with new tactics to entice students back into the classroom, often listing hybrid classes that only meet in person once a week.

“Certain pedagogical benefits – such as in-person discussions and interactions – cannot be easily replicated in online courses,” she concluded.

Four years removed from its onset, COVID-19’s ramification continues to be felt. While face masks and social distancing are now rare sights at Georgia State University’s Atlanta campus, the school and its students continue to adapt to the post-pandemic world’s new challenges.