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Unlike most, this pandemic is not my first experience with social isolation. During my first year of high school, my life was upended by a chronic illness. Increasingly, I became unable to attend classes, bedridden, and soon had to drop out altogether. With scant warning, my active lifestyle was put on hold — no longer could I go rock climbing, play tennis, practice cello and piano, travel, or do any of the social activities I once enjoyed. It would be two years before my health showed any significant improvements. Two years in my own socially distant quarantine. However, those years belied expectations; they proved to be filled with new friendships, communities, and, yes, a fulfilling educational experience entirely online.
At first, it seemed my whole world was swept from under me — but in time, I found a new community. I became a regular on a Minecraft server with a player base of around a hundred people from around the world. I developed dozens of friendships through this server. From a Canadian girl and fellow former high schooler to a Dutch electrical engineer. More than just building individual friendships, though, I connected with a community: a group of digital denizens tied together by the mutual goal of having fun. It had a warmth and familiarity similar to any in-person community I had been a part of.
For education, I had free rein to explore what I desired — which was math. I started in the standard way, taking some online classes. Those went alright. However, my online education transformed with my discovery of MIT OpenCourseWare. MIT OCW’s course materials were free and not behind registration or forced guiding apparatus. If I wanted to look at lecture 12 or problem set four immediately, I could.
With MIT OCW’s flexibility, I could study my own way. Instead of going course by course, I would go curiosity by curiosity. I also found an online community of amateur mathematicians. I would raise new concepts and problems online and there was always someone, or usually a few people, around to discuss with. Others would do the same, and I would learn what they were doing. The members had a wide range of expertise and interests. In a day, I would ask questions of experts in a topic I was struggling with and then teach those topics to those less expert than I. This added up to a learning experience with the freedom and interactivity hard to find in-person.
Succinctly capturing how meaningful these online communities were for me is difficult. I can remember late night chats about deeply personal topics with people whose faces I had never seen. I remember forming a game development team and starting a very unnecessary podcast with my Dutch friend. I remember Minecraft Christmas, decorations, presents, and all. I remember hosting evening math chats where half my European friends would join to listen to something while they went to sleep (it wasn’t the math — apparently I have a soothing “classic American” accent). People made joint art projects and songs for this online world. Four years after the Minecraft server shutdown, the community still holds weekly game nights. These examples comprise a minuscule fraction of the experience I had online.
So, what should we learn from this?
To my peers, you are not alone. Even when I was the only one in lockdown, I was not alone. Just like I managed to socialize in my time of isolation, so can you. However, you need to be flexible and learn to socialize in new ways. You can find and build communities and new experiences online. Approach online experiences with an open mind and reject the dogmatic insistence that online interaction is inferior. Virtual learning isn’t diminished learning, it’s a different, equally valid form of education. Meaningful online connections are not only possible but can be found in abundance.
To institutions, I ask you to share your resources. Harvard, the wealthiest university in the world, can share more of its expertise and course materials with the world as colleges outside its gates are struggling to survive. When I was isolated, MIT OCW enabled my education. With the world in isolation, it is high time Harvard followed suit.
To everyone, the time to affect change is now. My illness destroyed my world, but what followed was a reconstruction that yielded a new world unrecognizable from what came before. This pandemic destroyed our world and its reconstruction is happening now. We need to put conscious thought into what this change will be.
To start, the conversation around online education must change. So far, our discourse has focused on details of moving back to campus while treating online education as an afterthought and last resort. But this pandemic is a disruption to education that we may not see again for another lifetime. As we rebuild our education system to suit an online world, we also have the unique opportunity to reimagine it. We can continue to dismiss online education outright, or we can take this moment to proactively rethink pedagogy in the light of new technology. The new education paradigm is coming either way. Let's build it right.
Leo C. Alcock ’23 lives in Winthrop House.
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