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All the Blue Light We Cannot See: My Return to Online School

By Catherine H. Yeo
Catherine H. Yeo ’22 is a Computer Science concentrator in Dunster House.

“You’re from California? What high school did you go to?”

“I, uh,” I take a deep breath, “went to an online high school.”

“Online school?” A long pause. Then, the questions always come in a downpour. “Wait, that’s a thing? How does that work?” Finally, a faint whisper — “Did you have friends?”

For two years, I attended Stanford Online High School as a full-time student. To attend class, I walked from my bed to my desk in four steps. To ask questions, I pressed a button with the icon of a raised hand. The first time I met many of my classmates in-person was at graduation, after two years of sharing classes with them. Once I graduated, my adventures with full-time online schooling had ended.

Or so I thought.

On March 6, in the face of the growing COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Washington announced its decision to move all classes to virtual instruction. Other major institutions, including Stanford, Rice, and Princeton, swiftly followed. Days later, the axe came down at Harvard.

Virtual classes, time zone problems, breakout rooms — it felt like my online high school all over again. For everyone else, however, this was a new experience. I watched my classmates react to this change with dismay and despair. Students experiencing this transition around the nation bonded over the absurdity of virtual learning, with more than 150,000 members joining the Facebook group “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens” within a week. Many commented that online classes weren’t real classes — the semester might as well be over.

These reactions made me feel disheartened — in fact, my experience had taught me the opposite. From intense virtual seminar discussions to frog dissections performed in the bathroom, learning remained ferocious and fast-paced. Sure, there was a format difference, but my high school managed to instill and maintain rigorous academics, and I have no doubt Harvard will do the same.

Of course, there are issues with virtual learning. One thing I didn’t miss about online school was the regular video lag and audio disconnect: “Excuse me, your mic isn’t working”; “Your audio cut out halfway, could you repeat your answer?”; “Wait, your camera’s frozen — again.” And the technology issues will only multiply as the world continues to push the limits of bandwidth and Internet traffic.

The frustration of malfunctioning technology only touches the surface of what we lose. Replacing in-person schooling with virtual instruction also comes with a loss of expression — silent body language that always happened so naturally, like making eye contact across a room or fidgeting when we’re uncomfortable, is no longer natural.

Furthermore, there’s the root of everyone’s whispered question (Did you have friends?): the loss of social interaction. It’s a disorienting change from Harvard, where micro-level interactions govern our community: a quick “Hey what’s up!” when you run into a classmate in the Yard, a hasty wave across a crowded library, an eager dap when you spot a friend in the dhall. At home, the isolation can become stifling. You can’t hug your friends, or high five your classmates — it’s mostly just you. With nearly a quarter of the United States population now ordered to shelter-in-place, thousands of students are suddenly facing this isolation.

To overcome isolation, my high school classmates and I held study calls that spanned many hours and continents, dropping in and out as we wished. We held grade-wide movie nights, exchanged eRoses on Valentine’s Day, and celebrated birthdays. Over this spring break, I enjoyed meals with my Harvard friends over Zoom (bonus points if you have different individuals eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the same call!).

For our generation, a steep learning curve falls not on how to operate technology, but on how to use technology to maintain and deepen our relationships with others. Online schooling inspires students to develop creative and meaningful efforts to stay connected. As we undergo such chaotic times together, a virtual ecosystem gives us the chance to strengthen the bonds we’ve already forged in physical presence.

At the same time, we should use this experiment to identify gaps and opportunities to help students of the future. There are many issues to consider — unequal access to technology (e.g. computers, printers), disparate learning environments at home (e.g. Internet bandwidth, having a quiet room), lack of mental health resources, and other pressing inequities. As a community, we should brainstorm and develop solutions to address them. We shouldn’t merely view this virtual disruption as a setback, but also as an opportunity for Harvard to be an intellectual leader —framing national conversations on and initiatives for improving online learning infrastructure, access, and interaction.

I had two years of online schooling in high school which I am thankful for, so this crisis is an unexpected return to something I'm familiar with. For others at Harvard, this is something entirely new. Over these next few months, we must support each other, whether it’s through pixelated smiles or heartfelt text exchanges. And I hope, when we reunite on campus in the fall, we will be all the more eager to hug our friends, high five our classmates, and cherish every moment we spend together in person.

Catherine H. Yeo ’22 is a Computer Science concentrator in Dunster House.

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