Jay Corbin is an honors student in math and computer science at a community college in New Jersey, despite working full-time. He says he’s used these dreadful, disorienting days during the pandemic to find his path.

“It opened my eyes to a lot of things,” Corbin, 26, said. He attends Camden County Community College near Philadelphia.

With his classes and job online, he didn’t have to spend any time commuting, so he could schedule his day more easily. While most of his friends and professors want to return to class in-person this fall, Corbin says, for him, remote learning works.

“I think it helped me to see that everybody is online and that I should use this opportunity to my benefit,” he said. “As I was kind of getting into school and everything it was just like, ‘Ok, now let me focus on like my future goals.’”

This month marks the third academic year disrupted by the pandemic, which has forced college students to shift the way they learn on and off campus. That digital shift has given some students more freedom and focus, proving to be a benefit especially for working adults.

Those who have benefitted include “community college students, people who have other life responsibilities,” said John Mitchell, who chairs Stanford’s computer science department.

Community colleges in Massachusetts are continuing to offer online courses to various degrees this fall. Massasoit in Brockton, for example, is teaching 80% of its classes online.

Over the past year, Mitchell and his team have been interviewing students and professors about their online experiences.

“Some students who took a gap year got a lot out of it,” he said. “A number of people did something special that they wouldn’t have had a chance to do. They volunteered or they did a research internship. Some people got a lot out of this break. They got a new skill — or they got to reflect.”

Mitchell is decidedly optimistic, but he admits that the past year and a half has not been a good experience overall for campuses.

“Hey, would I choose another pandemic? No, no. This is not great,” he said. “We’re all trying to do our best to live with it.”

Duha Altindag, an economics professor at Auburn University, has been leading a team of researchers comparing the performance of 18,000 students at a public four-year university in one fully in-person class and another fully online class.

“Both courses are taught by the same professor and, in that case, the student does much better in her or his face-to-face class than online class,” Altindag said. “There’s something in face-to-face instruction that cannot be substituted, replaced, by online education.”

Still, Altindag said, he understands online education has its advantages: for one, the lower cost.

“It’s cheap,” he said. “From the perspective of universities, you can hire just one instructor and you can get to a class of 100 hundred people. But it’s not giving the same level of quality. So there’s kind of a tradeoff.”

Digital evangelicals, though, including Stanford’s Mitchell, point out calculating whether online education "works" in terms of learning is not so black and white.

Looking forward, Mitchell is confident all colleges will, in fact, incorporate more tech.

“I’m completely certain almost every student in the U.S. and around the world will ask in the next year, ‘I can't make it to class. Where’s the recording?’” he said.

Mitchell also predicts virtual office hours will continue because they’re more convenient for students like Corbin who, until the pandemic, never visited his professors during them.

“I think it helped me in a way, because now I feel more comfortable talking to my professors and now I can now I can even feel more confident when we’re back in person going to their office,” he said.

To make sure he understands his courses’ content, Corbin re-watches taped lectures.

Even as both his parents battled COVID-19, the working community college student, who hopes to transfer to a four-year college and work in educational technology, found time to join a research project at Stanford.

“This was a really great time to just reach out to people and start building connections,” he said.