Author: Michelle Zhang

Michelle, a high school junior and one of my research assistants for the last three years, is helping me think about the future of education. Very interesting to see the perspective of students heading to college in the next year or two. These are not the issues I would have guessed -- and that's the point. Great to see how she and her colleagues are crafting their best learning environments. Great to see their counselors giving them the freedom to do so. Michelle's bio is below - TG.

Regardless of people’s opinions of online classes, they are an essential tool for students and teachers alike. For all the technological “purists,” who believe that the physical classroom will fade into obscurity in the presence of online classes, I think you’ll be waiting a while.  I don’t see the classroom going away any time soon. However, if a student with low self-confidence is taking a class that isn’t a good fit, then an online class is the long-awaited alternative to that problem. Both classroom and online classes are here to stay. Period. 

Life of College Prep for Today’s Students

The subject of college preparation brings about images of taking a huge number of Advanced Placement (AP) Courses, private counselors, and prepping for standardized tests insanely early. However, there is one thing that is seriously underestimated and often times overlooked in the college preparation process: online classes. As a high school junior, I, unlike other students at my school, do not take an insane amount of AP classes, and I am taking one class online, Pre-calculus. There has been hot debate about the existence of these online classes and how it will shape the future of education, especially at my school amongst the people I interviewed.

Photograph taken by Bahn Mi of the Schoolwatch Programme and released freely under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Photograph taken by Bahn Mi of the Schoolwatch Programme and released freely under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Benefits and Burdens of Mixing Online and Face-to-Face Classes

In my US History class, there is a new student, let’s call him Austin. In order to be able to take US History at my school, students must take World History, but he hadn’t had that class at his old school. Austin opted to take a World History class online for credits over the summer, and he was able to get it done with an “A” in two and a half months. He, like me, recognizes the flexibility that an online class brings, and says it’s great if you are missing a required class. Austin told me it is also good if one is not particularly good at that subject. He says:

History was never my forte, and if I took an actual World History class in school, I would not do as well. There is a popular belief that a student’s success in a class is completely dependent on their work ethic. That is not the case. Their success also depends on their confidence in a subject, how the teacher structures his or her curriculum, and how the teacher interacts with his or her students. If all the cards are against you, then an online class could be a good alternative.

Austin brings up a good point. As a student, there are not many variables that are in my control. I am able to choose what classes I take, but whether I will be receptive to the teacher or teaching style is not known. I decided to take Pre-calculus online as it gives me more confidence since I control the pace. For example, I can repeat a section as many times as needed. I also feel comfortable when asking a stupid question to the assigned teacher via email. Though the response is not instantaneous, I feel some anonymity thus I am more open.  

I talked to my counselor, and she let me take the class and I just completed it with a solid “A.” However, as good as online classes are, they should not completely replace the classroom as the medium in which we learn. Austin agrees with me saying,

“If a person is taking six classes, and two are online, then that is ok. Human interaction between student and teacher is necessary for future success.”

The other student I interviewed, let’s call her Elaine, has a different view on online classes. She herself has never had a problem with missing a required class. She also has never struggled in any subject. Furthermore, she did not know that students were allowed to take online classes. She says: 

An online class is a hassle because in addition to going to school every day and going home and doing homework and studying for exams, you also have to make progress in an online class. Even if out of six classes, one or two of them is online, it would still be a hassle.

Elaine’s argument is also a valid one, however, she is taking five AP classes, a gargantuan amount compared to Austin’s and my measly two AP classes. For Elaine, time is more valuable than flexibility because she simply has less of it every day. An online class and a class in school are on two different spheres, and Elaine does not want to deal with another class in a, to her, totally different sphere. That said, she does recognize that online classes are a valuable tool for learning saying,

“Online classes are a great way to make things flexible, but for people who do not have much time, it is just another thing they have to deal with”.

Flexibility, Focus, Hassle

People who value flexibility more argue that online classes open up a different avenue. People who value time more disagree saying that it takes more time to make things flexible rather than proceeding as is. To the latter, it conjures up pictures of someone who constantly has to adjust their schedule. To them, the adjustment itself wastes precious time. To others, making things flexible just means prioritizing what is important. Whether students take an online class or not is completely up them. It all depends on what they think is important, flexibility or time.

Michelle Zhang is a junior at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, CA. She began doing research at Santa Clara University with Prof. Griffith in her freshman year. Michelle is very passionate about community service. She is the President of Teach Seniors Technology (, a student-run non-profit organization, and teaches weekly classes. She likes to travel with her family, play guitar, and watch TV.