How Do Online Classes Work in 2020?

By Sydney Wess / 29 September 2020

Technology inaccessibility and academic dishonesty are challenges for online classes in 2020, according to our survey of 400 college and high school students in the U.S. Learning tools and apps, however, could help students alleviate remote learning difficulties.

This fall, 62% of students are trading classrooms for their bedrooms to attend school virtually. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed high schools and colleges across the nation to shut their doors and move online to promote health and safety.

The quick transition to an online learning environment required students and teachers to make significant changes to their day-to-day work. 

Despite early challenges with transitioning online, remote learning will not be a quickly passing fad. Technologies such as Zoom, Google Classroom, and Quizlet have made education accessible from any location at any time of day. Experts foresee tech-enabled online learning to be a lasting trend, even after the pandemic passes. 

More colleges and universities are moving from in-person to online learning as COVID-19 cases surge on campuses. Teachers and students must lean into the benefits of remote learning while addressing roadblocks to make online education work effectively.

The Manifest surveyed 400 college and high school students in the United States to identify trends in online learning in 2020.

Our Findings

  • 71% of students anticipating lower grades during online learning lack consistent access to internet services. Low-income families and students living in rural areas will struggle most with accessibility, creating a possible class-based performance gap.
  • Remote learning is expensive. Students are buying computers (27%), internet services (23%), webcams (21%), and microphones (16%) in place of pencils and notebooks this year.
  • 95% of students used educational learning apps in the past year to supplement their education. E-learning apps will assume a larger role in education as online learning persists.
  • Quizlet (45%) is the most popular online learning tool among students. They prefer Quizlet to Chegg (21%) or Grammarly (25%). Education experts fear students will be more likely to cheat on assignments using these tools.  

Students Without Reliable WiFi Access Fear Lower Grades

Students who can’t count on always having internet access are more likely to worry about their fall 2020 grades. 

Reliable internet services are essential for students intending to take classes remotely this fall. The students who are most worried about their grades during online learning don’t have reliable internet. 

Currently, 71% of the students who anticipate attaining lower grades while remote don’t always have internet access.

71% of students who are anticipating lower grades while learning remotely, don't always have access to internet

High-speed internet accessibility issues disproportionately impact Black, Latino, and Native American students and families, creating an achievement gap as online classes continue.

Students living in rural areas throughout the country are also less likely to have access to high-speed internet services needed for remote learning. For example, a recent study covering the state of Wyoming indicated only about 30% of rural Wyoming students have access to high-speed broadband internet.

Rural areas are scrambling to expand their WiFi capabilities and organizations are donating services to those in need. However, laws in almost half of U.S. states prevent local governments from providing subsidized internet to those who need it. 

As organizations work to establish increased accessibility, students are falling behind in class and will be tasked with catching up to more resourced students. Some say the growing performance gap could have a lasting impact on disadvantaged students.

Brett Downes is the Founder and CEO of Haro Helpers, an editorial service provider, and believes limited internet access could negatively affect students’ grades.  

“Less affluent families may not have the required technology, or [students] will need to share with siblings,” Downes said. “This can affect their learning and confine it to certain times of day.”

Downes believes students in under-resourced households are more likely to rush their work, knowing access to online content may be restricted.

Until states and organizations find a way to provide internet access to those in need, students without reliable internet access will continue to fall behind in online classes.

Learning Remotely Requires Students to Buy Tech Equipment

Students will have to purchase and acclimate to using additional technologies and equipment to make remote learning effective. 

To access online classes, students are buying computers (27%), printers (27%), software (24%), internet access (23%), webcams (21%), and microphones (16%), in addition to their typical back-to-school necessities this year.

Graph of the equipment students need the most for remote learning

Required tech equipment purchases make remote learning expensive. In fact, back to school spending is expected to reach record highs, despite higher levels of unemployment and economic uncertainty. 

Spending has likely increased because remote learning equipment wasn’t required in past years. With a financial barrier to entry, remote learning may cause increased learning disparities.

Chans Weber, founder and CEO of marketing company Leap Clixx, believes colleges and private schools are responsible for making sure their students have essential resources. 

“Especially when it comes to college tuition, you should not have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a degree that you must complete online [and] on equipment that you have purchased yourself,” Weber said.

Even for those financially able to purchase new tech equipment, delayed delivery times made a virtual return to school more stressful than normal.

The supply chain struggled to meet the massive demand for laptops and computers. School and community leaders across the country ordered thousands of devices to prepare for remote learning, creating a laptop shortage just before the start of the semester. 

Experts recommend students and families use free online learning resources to save money during the back-to-school season. While laptops and internet access are expensive, they afford students access to free online resources such as Khan Academy or Varsity Tutors to support learning effectively. 

The transition to online learning isn’t cheap, which will challenge communities to adjust to a remote education environment.

Education Apps Will Be a Major Learning Trend in Online Classrooms

E-Learning apps are essential to the fall 2020 semester. Students benefit from the flexibility they add to the remote learning experience. 

Almost all high school and college students (95%) used an education app such as Quizlet or Duolingo in the past year.

95% of students have used educational apps in the past year

Students supplement their education with mobile applications. Most notably, they’re comfortable using Quizlet (44%), Wikipedia (33%), Cliffsnotes (17%), and Duolingo (14%). 

Students’ familiarity with tech isn’t the only benefit of education apps. During remote learning e-learning apps:

Lindsey Wander, founder and CEO of WorldWise Tutoring, a lifelong tutoring company, believes one of the greatest benefits of online learning tools is their ability to level the playing field for all connected students.

“Online learning through the use of technology is a great equalizer,” Wander said. “Students of all backgrounds and at any location can have access to high-quality online learning resources by simply having a device and access to WiFi.”

Learning apps that are accessible on web and mobile devices may help students with limited tech resources. For instance, a student can access the Quizlet app on either a computer or smartphone. If a parent or sibling is using the home computer, the student can turn to her phone to study through an app.

Despite students’ comfort with educational apps, teachers may struggle to integrate new technologies into their curriculum. Aaron Simmons, educator at Test Prep Genie, an exam preparation service, stressed that teachers need to acclimate to new technology as well. 

“Without access to proper tools, it can be impossible for teachers to educate their learners,” Simmons said. “While using technology isn’t bothering the skilled young generation, it could be a great challenge for educators who are in their late adulthood.”

Without access to proper tools, it can be impossible for teachers to educate their learners.

Simmons recommends educators use technology to engage students during remote learning.

Teachers and students will experience a successful online semester by using education apps to supplement course content. 

Online Learning Tools Such As Quizlet and Chegg Can Contribute to Academic Dishonesty While Remote

High school and college students prefer using Quizlet to popular competitors such as Chegg and Grammarly. Quizlet remains the most popular learning tool, despite Chegg’s stock market surges and media attention.

Almost half of students (45%) have used Quizlet in the past year. As remote learning continues, students who are familiar with the tool will use it to support academic performance.

graph of the top online resources students used in past year

Students also commonly rely on Grammarly (25%), Chegg (21%), and Sparknotes (20%) to help with schoolwork.

Quizlet became popular by helping students and teachers create virtual flashcards and quizzes for studying. 

Chegg is known for connecting students with tutoring services and providing writing help. Chegg subscriber numbers and stock performance surged after COVID-19 was named a pandemic and spring 2020 classes moved online. The service is expected to continue to expand with remote learning. 

Prior to the pandemic, students used Quizlet and Chegg for cheating. Many students even openly discuss cheating using education tools on social media.

example of students cheating using Quizlet during online learning

Source: Twitter 

Some tutors report that students approach them for help on remote tests and exams, indicating that students already use learning tools for academic dishonesty.

Remote learning may increase the number of students attempting to cheat on assignments. In a remote classroom, teachers are not able to monitor their students at the same physical level allowed in an in-person class. 

“Online lessons are not in close proximity, so efficient monitoring of the students’ work is more challenging, which decreases the likelihood of mistakes being caught and corrected quickly,” Wander said.

Wander also noted that it will be challenging for teachers to pick up nonverbal cues signaling confusion from students through the computer screen. She believes cheating can be minimized by meaningful, essential changes to course curriculum.

TJ Hoffman is the COO of a coaching service for educators called Sibme. Hoffman also believes additional test planning by teachers can prevent cheating.

“Student cheating will only be a consequence of poor assignment design, not the technology itself,” Hoffman said. “I used to tell teachers, ‘If the answers to your test can be answered by Googling them, they aren't worth asking.’”

Student cheating will only be a consequence of poor assignment design, not the technology itself.

Hoffman recommends making assignments and tests unique to the course and not searchable on a platform like Quizlet.

Learning tools such as Quizlet and Chegg will continue to be remote learning mainstays, so teachers and students should be aware of their potential effects on academic integrity. 

Remote Learning Will Require Adjustments From Students and Teachers

So far, the transition to remote learning has not been straightforward or easy. Educators and institutions faced challenges such as ransomware attacks or Zoom platform crashes, requiring quick solutions.

Some students are struggling to keep up with coursework already as a result of limited WiFi access. Disadvantaged families may be unable to provide their students with the tech equipment needed to access remote learning materials online.

However, online education apps provide an engaging way for students to access course material on a variety of platforms. Their growing popularity will give students additional opportunities to keep pace in a remote learning environment.

Additionally, students are using online learning tools such as Quizlet and Chegg for extra help outside the school day. Teachers should ensure, however, that answers to assignments cannot be found in a deck of Quizlet flashcards to reduce academic dishonesty.

Remote learning demands speedy adjustments to different technologies. Educators and students must make a concerted effort to adopt and provide access to tech that makes online education accessible.

Online Learning FAQs

How are online classrooms structured?

Online courses are either synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous classes occur live within a virtual classroom and are paced similarly to an in-person class. Asynchronous classes are self-paced, so students can progress through course content and assignments as they please throughout the term.

Are online classes easier than in-person classes?

Not necessarily. Students benefit from online classes offering a more flexible schedule. They can complete assignments at their own pace and often use outside resources to complete assignments. However, students may experience difficulties asking instructors for help, making communication and classroom organization more challenging. 

How do online tests and exams work?

Open note tests are becoming increasingly common in online classrooms. While students can use outside resources to help them through the test, these exams are often essay-based. This prevents students from leaning too heavily on notes or outside resources.

Some tests are also virtually proctored by automated software platforms that can detect instances of cheating or academic dishonesty.

Do online classes have set times?

Sometimes! Synchronous classes meet at regularly scheduled times. Contact your instructor to determine if your course is synchronous or asynchronous.

Is it easier to cheat in online classes?

Potentially, but not if teachers are using effective virtual resources. Remote exam proctoring platforms can detect cheating through a webcam and by monitoring open applications on a student’s computer. 

Teachers are also advised to create unique test questions that could not be answered easily using educational tools. However, if teachers don’t take these steps, students may cheat more easily.

About the Survey

The Manifest surveyed 400 students in high school and college from July 27 to August 2, 2020.

51% of respondents are female; 43% of respondents are male; 6% of respondents chose not to identify. 

39% of respondents live in the South; 29% of respondents reside in the Midwest; 24% of the respondents are from the West; 8% of respondents are from the Northeast.

20% of the respondents are high school seniors; 15% of the respondents are college freshmen and sophomores; 23% of the respondents are college juniors and seniors; 26% of the respondents are graduate students; 17% of the respondents are Ph.D. students.

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