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February 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Should Universities Go Virtual? Exploring Student Perspectives on the Pros and Cons of Online Education

Ahlam Al Rawahi has diligently dedicated the last 15 years of her life to teaching English Language at Sultan Qaboos University while conducting research to uncover the potential of the most common teaching practices in her class and her colleagues’ classes. She holds a Master of Learning Science and Technology from Sydney University and has presented in many national and international conferences. Her current research interests include educational technology and innovation.


There is an ongoing debate about whether traditional universities should go virtual or not. Even though going virtual requires massive human and financial investment in the short term, the author believes it can pay off very well in the long term. However, that is a future that many traditional universities are not willing to build in fear of the downsides and limitations of the online educational environments in comparison to the richness and convenience the traditional educational environments bring. In this article, the author will maintain a neutral tone by presenting both perspectives while backing them up with students’ perspectives collected by the author after giving a compulsory virtual class in the middle of the semester based on students’ request. The feedback was collected at Sultan Qaboos University via short email interviews with intermediate to upper intermediate English language learners majoring in business. The online lesson delivered had 2 main parts: creating and delivering a mini presentation on the 4 Industrial Revolutions based on a well-selected article and a reading task on a relevant topic. Students were divided up into small groups and were given  private Google Meet rooms to discuss and collaborate on Google Slides using bullet points to summarize and then present the assigned information to the whole class in the main Google Meet room. Each group was given 1 industrial revolution to read about and then present to class. Afterwards, students read a text and answered comprehension questions on Socrative- an online student response system. The author then went through the questions and showed the students’ answers anonymously and discussed problematic points. That being said, this article will show that the downsides to virtual classes, as real as they can be, should not discourage universities to harness the potential of virtual learning environments.

First, going virtual in universities can bring so many benefits such as flexibility and accessibility to those who do not have easy access to education due to physical or geographical hindrances. One of the students said that you can attend classes while “you’re in the comfort of your own home”. Another student highlighted the excitement the online experience brought to her classmates: “Online courses bring education right to where you are, and most of my classmates were sharing pictures of them attending the class from different places which was interesting.”

Second, online classes can save both faculty and students the cost of driving to class and the time this can take, especially in cities known for traffic during rush hours. This was mentioned by one of the students saying: “we have much time in online class and we don't waste time in traffic and other stuff that delays our arrival.”

Third, online educational environments can be safer and less stressful for shy and less confident students. One of the surveyed students said that she “find(s) online classes easier to participate in and less nerve racking.” Online classes can also be a safer environment to build up confidence in speaking publicly as evident here: “It’s a little more comfortable to present behind a screen without any eyes looking at you.” There is also an improved opportunity for more privacy when going virtual where students can be divided into smaller groups and given a private online meeting room to collaborate on a given task. When asked what they liked the most, one student said: “The fact that each group has its own (virtual) area allows us to converse in complete privacy.” This extra privacy is clearly a reason why students feel more comfortable in online classes.

Moving to the limitations students highlight, the restricted online human interactions between students is evident due to over reliance on audio communication as students tend to shy away from video streaming.  “It’s just that online interactions of course can never make up for face to face interactions; I just feel like the part about opening and muting the mic is a bit awkward compared to face to face interactions, where it’s easier and convenient to communicate in my opinion. But of course it’s something that you can get used to although without a doubt in most cases I'd personally prefer to have a face to face class because it's easier to focus face to face than online where it’s easy to get distracted.” Another student said: “In the mini presentation, I faced some challenges in connecting with my classmates because not everyone opened the mikes. They used the chatbox, so I couldn’t see their messages because I was on the article page. It will be easy to organize the work by talking (with audio) instead of chatting (in writing).” It is clear that not harnessing the full potential of video conferencing partially hindered the progress the students were trying to make.

This leads to the next limitation as some students tend not to take online classes as seriously as face to face classes. One student reported: “I find it hard to fully focus because you aren’t in a strict learning environment (if that makes sense) but I try my best to constantly remind myself of the importance of the class whether it’s online or not I’m only harming myself by not fully paying attention.” It is clear the student is aware of the limitation and she is impressively trying to overcome it by making the right mental shifts. That is a sign of a high level of self awareness which should be nurtured in university students and allowed to manifest in unusual learning experiences.

The third limitation which is the most annoying and out of control is the lack of a reliable internet connection. This is unfortunately one of the most common problems students face.

  • “I had difficulty with the internet at first, and I could not speak and participate, but later everything became fine.”
  •  “I was in an area where there is not much network, so I didn't show up at the end of class.”
  • “The only problem in online classes is the internet; unfortunately there was a problem with the internet connection early in the morning but I managed to solve the problem and attend the class.”
  • “As I wasn't  at home, I faced difficulties with the network. I tried moving around the library to solve the issue but sadly at the end of the class I couldn't join as the network was so weak at the library.”

Interestingly, even when the connection is good, it is the major concern students have when classes go virtual:

  • “I was concerned about the connection of the network, but I had no problems and could keep up with the lecturer.”
  • “I was worried about the network connection, but I did not face any issues and I was able to follow the lecturer.”

Even though this was a clear problem to a number of students, they stressed the fact that going virtual was an interesting experience and that it is worth trying.

  • “All in all, it was a lovely experience.”
  • “About the preparation for the mini presentation, I think there was no problem at all with doing it online. It was actually very convenient especially because each team got to work together on Google Meet separately, so I think these types of collaborations are suitable with online classes, and I think if today's mini presentation were face to face, it wouldn't have been any more convenient than doing it online.”
  • “I loved all the activities we did. The change in the lecture system played a great role in making the lecture very interesting.”
  • “Thank you for today’s well-prepared class. I enjoyed the mini-presentation that we did in a short time, as it helped us a lot to know more about the industrial revolutions in an interesting way.”
  • “The online class has its unique style in teaching and we used to get online teaching during the pandemic period and we got used to it.”
  • “I enjoyed class a lot today; it was actually fun; my favorite part was reading the article since it had interesting information…. I also enjoyed the part about preparing the mini presentation today, and mentioning some information outside the article but related to the information in it.”
  • “I enjoyed the reading and vocabulary part because we did it smoothly, and I liked when you showed our reading answers by the app because I learned why I made my mistakes and I understood the questions.”

All in all, universities should harness the potential of virtual learning experiences and allow their faculty to be creative with online tools. Forcing regulations that hinder and even prevent faculty from pursuing such endeavors is only detrimental in the long term.


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  • Should Universities Go Virtual? Exploring Student Perspectives on the Pros and Cons of Online Education
    Ahlam Said Al Rawahi, Oman