The new age problems of Online Learning

Opinion Editor Khalil Gordon discusses the challenges posed by online school. This one’s been a long time coming.

Gordon uses the mobile version of Zoom, which doesn’t even have the luxury of gallery view. (Unsplash)

Hello everyone, welcome back to another semester of school. I hope that it’s been going better for you than it’s been going for me the last few months. I thought about writing this story as an editorial, but in truth, I think the experience of what I’m about to discuss is far too subjective to work in that format. Nonetheless, I’ll try to be objective as I write.

At this point we have all endured a semester plus change of online schooling. Some of us have had hybrid courses, some were synchronous, and many were asynchronous. I don’t think anyone was truly prepared for the relatively instantaneous switch that was mandated nearly a year ago. For me personally, the spring semester of my sophomore year quickly dissolved from something rather promising for my GPA into a desperate struggle to simply pass. I’ve heard enough stories to know that the struggle to merely remain above water is not one that has been remedied with time.

At the beginning of last semester, I thought that since I knew most of my classes would be online, I would be better able to prepare for it. This could not have been farther from the truth and while I didn’t fail any courses, I can scarcely remember a week going by where I didn’t receive an email of concern from a professor or a proper deficiency notice. With that in mind, I truly believe myself to have been among the lucky ones — I think we can safely conclude that online classes suck.

I don’t blame any professor for the problems spawned from this situation. By and large they are struggling just as much as we are, and with proper communication many are quite lenient and open to change. However, I think many are falling into a work trap that has existed in formal schooling for some time but that, in the absence of usual structure, has gotten even worse. 

Everyone knows the story of finally getting a break from school, a holiday, a snow day or a long weekend, and in response to this apparent boost in free time many teachers tend to assign more work than normal. I don’t know why this happens, most likely it’s to help students keep on top of material, but when every teacher opts to assign more work, what little gain the break provided is functionally negated. In some situations, students are actually more overwhelmed than they would have been had the break not existed. This phenomenon seems to have been amped up to the nth degree for Zoom classes, where in an attempt to make up for losing the experience of in person lessons, many professors have added seemingly unending amounts of small assignments to their curriculum. In isolation I suppose it’s not that bad, but when paired with the swarms of posts required for other classes, it becomes a lot for students to keep track of. 

This next story may betray some of my more lackadaisical tendencies but it highlights another issue I’d like to discuss. Last semester, I had one asynchronous class. The grading system was based on weekly tasks consisting of quizzes and assignments. While quizzes only allowed a single attempt, all assignments allowed infinite tries. 

I never opened my textbook once, and through the power of educated guessing I got the grade needed to pass. I won’t complain about not learning anything in that course, but I feel that students are now forced into situations where they have to teach themselves increasingly more lengthy and complex material. Why am I paying the tuition, in addition to the cost of a third party website, that I am to teach myself the material. I could have gotten the same educational experience by just buying the textbook cheap online and skimming it. 

My point is that online teaching is not an excuse to dump material at students and expect them to figure it out. Yes, for some people that may work, but others need the material explained to them. At the very least, they need someone checking in to make sure they are keeping up with the material. 

I think this leads well into the last topic I want to talk about in this article, that being the issue of staying motivated. I won’t beat around the bush here, I have struggled to maintain any form of enthusiasm or interest in my courses since the beginning of my freshman year and every year that fight gets a little harder. With most of my classes now being on Zoom, my decline has become exponential. 

When you’ve been sitting in front of a computer screen for four hours, looking impatiently at the clock anticipating to spend another two more at your desk, the ever present option to turn off your camera and do literally anything else becomes so intoxicating. And while I have it in the back of my mind that I’m probably missing valuable lecture material, my god am I exhausted. 

Here’s the thing; the traditional teaching method of reading off of slides translates terribly to an online setting. The impact of a PowerPoint comes from the power of the speaker, a power which simply does not exist when presented over Zoom. Furthermore, the feeling of spending an hour and a half in front of a computer screen is not the same as spending the same time in a classroom. I think too few professors have properly adapted to the online medium. While the resources available in person have historically favored writing and explaining, the online medium has such a vast array of distribution methods to play with. 

I am acutely aware of the challenges presented by trying to not only adapt your curriculum online, but to develop a new curriculum that is supported by it. I do however think that while the time taken to prepare material would increase, the time taken to distribute it would radically decrease. This would make it more accessible and lead to easy retention of material. I am however, not a professional, and I appreciate the work that the response committee have put towards making a semester even happen. Despite this, there are always ways for things to be improved, and the first to step doing that is to identify problem areas, which is what I hope to have done here. Do with this article what you will, and thank you for reading. 

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