Student essay: Why online 'learning' could never compare to the real deal

Samantha Wiehe
Nordonia High School student

Editor's Note: This research paper was written by a Nordonia High School senior enrolled in College Writing 1, a dual-enrollment course with college credit awarded through Kent State University.  It has been edited due to space limitations. The views expressed are those of the student and not necessarily of Nordonia High School or the News Leader. 

Online learning is one of the biggest cop-outs schools have come up with to date. Schools that think giving kids worksheets to fill out or video lessons to watch can measure up to in-person schooling, are doing it wrong. Students have countless barriers to climb through when experiencing online “learning” and yet expectations are kept the same. And those who believe a video call can compare to a lesson given in the flesh are obviously not up to date on the drawbacks of online courses. Even though COVID-19 has forced some schools into a fully remote learning model, the way it is being conducted is not acceptable for the students and teachers involved.

Students have enough distractions in classrooms already. Stick them at home and it is like a little kid at an amusement park. Looking past their cell phones, students also now have access to TVs, video games, and the most problematic distraction for many students - their beds. With all the options at hand, it is not hard to see why students often struggle with setting priorities. Eight A.M. online class vs sleeping until noon…I know which one I would choose, but that does not mean the same for all students.

Three psychologists, Rachael Blasiman, Donald Larabee, and Dianah Fabry conducted a study of the effect of six different distractions on students’ test scores (including folding laundry, playing a computer video game, texting on a cell phone, engaging in conversation, watching a low-arousal video, and watching a high-arousal video). They found an average of 25% decrease on test scores across all distractions tested. Therefore, showing that no matter the length of time, or mindlessness of the distractions, they can still have a serious effect on the knowledge a student can acquire while preoccupied.

Although multitasking is encouraged in some light, doing so while trying to learn online is not a smart idea for students. I find myself in the same predicaments. I put on a video lesson and think I can make myself lunch or play video games while this is on and still understand the material. It typically results in having to replay the video multiple times to understand the lesson being “taught.” If I, a senior in high school, can be so easily distracted from my online classes, how are middle school and elementary students expected to learn from videos? Without a teacher keeping them focused face-to-face, it is not hard to see why their short attention spans will get the better of them. Even the best of the best students in high school find themselves getting easily diverted from their work. With no classroom environment and in-person instructors to keep students engaged in learning and on track, interruptions find their way to the top of the priority list and less learning is occurring.

School is not just about academics. For many people, it is their main source of social interaction. Whether that is being student to teacher, student to student, or even teacher to teacher. Just being around others is enough motivation for some individuals to come back each day. Online “learning” takes this away. Some instructors use “breakout rooms” during lessons as a means for interaction between students, but it is not the same (and coming from a student’s perspective, nothing productive happens in those rooms). Other teachers use group projects to practically force students to find a way to communicate with other students in their class. But with today’s technology, students simply text one another, and no real form of social connection takes place.

Without face to face interaction regularly, the mental health of both students and teachers can be greatly affected. A study of 12 students with a diagnosed mental health disability showed that the barriers produced from online learning can largely impact the already bad mental health of some students. The study indicated that the students involved chose to do online learning because of what they thought would be a better environment for themselves but discovered that the online schooling more negatively impacted them than they believed it would. Some effects the participants noticed were memory difficulties, disrupted study patterns, and increased stress and anxiety. These effects can be boiled down to the sense of isolation online learning creates and the lack of social support usually received by other students and teachers in a physical classroom. Being on a video call does not compare to the interaction in a classroom setting, and that is one of the mistakes that schools are making when they plan their remote “learning” schedules.

The temptations of the positive side of remote instruction are sometimes too good to resist. It seems so easy to just pop online, give directions to students, and tell them to finish their work. Students who are sick can participate. Students in other countries or states can participate. All at the same time a greater feeling of safety is felt by all those involved. The University of Illinois at Springfield says, “the main advantage of asynchronous online learning is that it allows students to participate in high quality learning situations when distance and schedule make on-ground learning difficult-to-impossible,” which in cases like online colleges, where courses have been perfected for years on end and students know what they signed up for, this statement is most likely true. But for high schools affected by COVID-19, the same methods more often have flaws when they are thrown together for both the students and teachers. It is incredibly hard to keep students engaged and valuing their learning when they signed up for an in-person class in the spring and now must try and be excited about a Zoom class every day. Although these are unexpected and difficult times, our nation is made up of millions of creative and intelligent individuals, and by settling for simple online meetings and worksheets, we are doing our students and teachers an incredible disservice.

From an outside perspective, it could easily be assumed that students are the only ones suffering from the lack of “learning” that goes on in the online classroom model. Teachers, however, are equally, if not, more affected during these times. They must work to please students, parents, administration, and their colleagues while also trying to preserve their morals of teaching and learning. Parker J. Palmer, an expert on education who has written many books about the teaching profession, states, “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”

Providing “good teaching” in a normal classroom setting is hard enough, but then put teachers in front of 30 kids with their cameras and microphones off and it must be extremely difficult to keep their identity and integrity as instructors intact. Most teachers enter the profession because they enjoy teaching their content area and they want to help children learn. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to watch students’ value of learning decline so rapidly with the input and option of online schooling.

Even though this is “just another year” for educators, whereas students are missing a year they only get to experience once (senior year, freshman year, etc.), it still must be difficult for teachers to know their students this year are not getting the full experience and knowledge of in-class learning. In order to try and compensate for the lack of excitement and engagement among students, teachers have to put in more than maximum effort to redesign their lessons for an online learning environment.

For teachers to feel content with the amount and quality of instruction they are giving to students, they need to make sure the lessons are as effective through a screen as they would be in person, and that is often extremely difficult to accomplish. Hence, it is not hard to see why many teachers are struggling with how exactly to go about teaching on their new online platforms.

Another disadvantage to both teachers and students in an online schooling environment lies in the limitations and requirements that come with technology. Our society has advanced so that the technology tools available today were not even imagined as possible in the past. Even with new innovative devices, however, there are many obstacles that those involved must face when dealing with technology all day. In-the-flesh classes allow teachers to give students a break from technology with activities that do not require it. Online schooling, on the other hand, whether it being group work over a Zoom call, a task on a website, or just checking in with a teacher (on Google Classroom or any other site) to see what the work for the day is, requires students to use technology for every class, every day. There is only so much one can do with the technology available to them; students do not have unlimited access to whatever type of machinery they’d like. Some students do not even have enough internet connection at home to use the computer given to them by their school. And on the teacher’s side, the technology available cannot be deemed 100% reliable for everything they want to accomplish with their students. A study of 200 learners across 16 organizations and 14 countries reported that 68% of participants participated in online courses at their desks and 77% revealed they were unable to complete or pass the course in one attempt. The learners in this study were out of high school, either in college, or doing an online course for a workplace, so if adults, like the ones in this study, had trouble completing an online course in one try (for many reasons), how can the expectations be the same, or even greater, for high school or middle school students?

The moral of the story is that students may be listening during online classes, but they are not learning. Teachers can try their best to adjust their instructions and find technology-friendly activities, but without the interaction and the relationships of a face-to-face classroom, it is extremely difficult for students to understand and ultimately learn the material. Some administrators and those “in charge” of teachers most likely get frustrated with feedback they receive from both students and teachers (that is, if they ask all those involved) about the effectiveness of online schooling, but from any outside perspective, it may not look as strenuous and ineffective as it is. “In-person meetings provide a sense of intimacy, connection and empathy that is difficult to replicate via video” says Brandon Wu, a staff writer from The Paly Voice, “It’s much easier to ask for attentive listening and presence, which creates the psychological safety that people need to sense in order to engage and participate fully.” 

Online schooling cannot measure up to the real thing, and both government officials and administrators of the schools themselves should take into consideration the importance of in-person schooling when making educational decisions. If those in the highest positions devalue the significance of face-to-face learning, students will go along and do that right with them.