Student looking up into the sky, perhaps considering nonlinear learning.
Consider choosing a different college path. (Image via Unsplash)

Nonlinear Learning? COVID-19 Calls for Unconventional College Educations

College classes are moving online these days. Rather than stick with a subpar school experience, why not choose an alternative path?

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Student looking up into the sky, perhaps considering nonlinear learning.

College classes are moving online these days. Rather than stick with a subpar school experience, why not choose an alternative path?

It’s 8:59 a.m. You’re still in bed and your 9:00 alarm is seconds away. You aren’t panicking. There’s no need to worry — it’s a Zoom class, and your computer is an inch away. This is not an improbable situation, but our new reality, at least in U.S. colleges this fall. Does it sound like a rip-off? Is this not at all how you want your college experience to go? You aren’t alone if you answered yes. The uplifting news is that nonlinear learning is another option.

What? A way out of a dreaded online semester? Impossible. Classes are online, and you have to go to school this semester. There is no other way.

Well, that was before — before the pandemic, the lockdown, the uncertain economy and lack of job prospects, before the world was total disorder and chaos. Nothing is the same as it was months ago, so why continue on with the norm of the American educational system? It may be time to give nonlinear learning a try, or at least a serious consideration.

You don’t have to go to a university this semester. It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshly graduated high school senior, a final-semester senior in college or anywhere in between. You can take this semester off. College is costly, and the expense should not be taken lightly. Why waste $15,000 for a semester entirely online when you can get more bang for your buck elsewhere — say, at community college?

Community college is a great option for a degree in general, but those attending a four-year program can also benefit. Odds are you probably have some general education credits you need to get out of the way. Don’t take them at your high-priced university. Talk to your school about transferring credits from your local two-year and give your bank account a break. Take a step away from the straight path of completing all your classes at your admitted college. That four-year program will be around when you get back.

In your time apart from your chosen school, seize the opportunity for exploration. Getting basic classes out of the way will allow for more flexibility in your schedule to sign up for the unique class offerings at your school.

Capitalizing on the courses at the community college is an additional benefit of nonlinear learning. Traditionally, you would take around 15 credits a semester. If you only have 12 credits left of gen eds, why not take a three-credit course on one of your interests? Take some time for your hobbies for once, or try something that’s never crossed your mind.

It’s advised not to take “fun” classes irrelevant to your major at college. The system is designed for degree completion in four years specific to your major. Anything straying from that brings in additional time and subsequently a heavy price tag. With the method of nonlinear learning, your degree completion is already askew (which is perfectly fine), and you are actually saving money. Take the leap of faith. Explore that pottery class or the foreign language class that won’t fit your four-year track.

Such a tight timeline isn’t optimal for everyone. It’s too rushed under normal circumstances, but now we have to factor in a pandemic. Rather than testing out online class after online class to find your passion in life, take a gap year. Maybe you thought about it before but were too terrified of the idea. Now is your chance. School isn’t the same anyway, so why not give alternative learning a try and return to school once it functions how you want it to?

The beauty of a gap “year” is that it’s modeled to fit your needs. It doesn’t follow one structured path like so many standard college plans. It can be official, through a school program, or it can be you just dropping out for a year and then re-enrolling. An official program will allow you to retain scholarship offers and admission status but may not be available at every school. Taking an unofficial gap year can achieve the same results as a program through the school.

The issue is what to do during this sabbatical of sorts. All we have ever known is school and short breaks. Such an unprecedented amount of free time is intimidating. What on Earth would we do with all of this time? The answer is not just to sit around and watch Netflix all day. Gap years from school provide a variety of self-growth opportunities that can be just as rigorous as a full college course load.

Gap years don’t have to mean being set back in your career growth. You can use this time off from school to try furthering yourself in the industry or try different career choices.

Ever taken a class and realized you hated it? Job shadowing provides a more accurate assessment of whether you chose the right major and career path. Participating in an internship, externship or even apprenticeship during your gap year will give an even better insight into whether you want to continue pursuing your degree or switch to an entirely different one. Use the break from the classroom to test out the real deal. You gain real-world experience that textbooks and lectures don’t provide.

Jobs and internships aren’t the only avenues for gaining perspective on what you want to spend the rest of your life doing. Veering completely away from your major is another approach to seeing whether you’re in the right field or not. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and if you take a year away from your classes and don’t miss them, that could a be sign.

But education isn’t just found in a classroom or on the job. In this Internet Age, YouTube videos, blogs, and websites like MasterClass provide endless resources to learn any topic imaginable. Filmmakers can learn physics, and economics majors can learn illustration. Testing out hobbies is not an impractical way to spend a gap year. Standard methods of education aren’t the be-all, end-all.

Nothing is cushy, normal or exactly how we want. College may have been part of your plan, but it could be less than ideal in the current world climate. We shouldn’t be expected to follow a normal path in an abnormal time. If online classes are anything less than satisfactory, you don’t have to settle. Just because you grew up going from grade to grade to grade doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.

Nonlinear learning is a viable option. It may seem scary, and it may not have been part of your plan, but don’t discount it. Life is unpredictable, and we have to be brave enough to step into the unknown. Take your life and your education into your own hands and follow the path that is right for you. It may not be that 9 a.m. Zoom class.

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