K-12 Education

Remote Learning During a Pandemic: What to Expect and How to Cope

October 22, 2020  • Sojas Wagle, Sophomore at Brown University & Education and Society Program

As the pandemic rages on, going “back to school” looks a lot different for most students and educators, and remote learning is becoming the new normal. While tuning into class in pajamas and in the comfort of one’s own home sounds delightful at first, restricting the academic experience to a computer screen can present its own challenges that deserve to be identified and mitigated.

  1. Students are learning in environments with more distractions.
    When my university transitioned to online learning last semester, I was surprised by how sensitive I was to the change in my learning environment. On campus, productivity came easily to me. I had the luxury of silently working in a library filled with other students doing the same thing. At home, though, I was susceptible to every distraction stemming from my family and the general understanding that my home could not be spontaneously refurbished into a productive workspace.The fact of the matter is students most likely aren’t attending class in silent study spaces; having family members and pets clamoring in the background is a reality that many students have to reconcile with paying attention in class. But staying focused is still possible! Psychological scientist Michael Mrazek of the University of California, Santa Barbara conducted a study that found a strong correlation between the incorporation of mindfulness exercises into one’s weekly schedule with improved academic performance and higher working memory capacity. Mrazek concluded that mindfulness has the power to reduce mind-wandering when it matters most. Taking a few minutes everyday to practice meditation and deep breathing can pay off generously in the long run.
  2. Remote participation is less fulfilling and more taxing.
    There is no arguing that social interaction will be less effective virtually. It’s ok to admit that. Last semester, I was devastated when I realized my screen served as an impermeable barrier to genuine, heartfelt interaction. I longed to return to the times when I could actively participate in class and in side conversations with peers simultaneously without technical difficulty or social artifice. While the adage that eighty-five percent of communication is conveyed through body language cannot be empirically supported, body language is still key to communication and is largely lacking in Zoom calls. In addition, some teachers hold the misconception that if they make each school day one long Zoom call and require students to have their cameras on all day, the classroom experience will be more authentic. But that’s completely disregarding the very real phenomenon of Zoom fatigue. Maintaining a “constant gaze” with fellow classmates and educators when all you can see are their heads has proven to be mentally exhausting.This sense of lethargy can be reduced with frequent breaks from online meeting platforms. Taking breaks from Zoom calls doesn’t necessarily mean that the learning process itself has to be put on hold; rather, teachers should feel free to get creative with their lesson plans and assign “in-class” tasks that can be completed individually during a Zoom break. Encouraging, but not requiring, students to turn on their cameras is also imperative. Some students can be particularly self-conscious about showing their face, and in some instances, they’re having to help out at home with chores while tuning into class simultaneously for personal, familial reasons. Students’ privacy should be respected.
  3. The logistics of online learning are a challenge for students and educators alike.
    Remote learning doesn’t just require a different approach to learning: it promulgates new logistical challenges. For university classes targeted toward both domestic and international students, finding a time to have a synchronous Zoom meeting can be difficult. I already had an early morning class pre-transition-to-virtual-learning last semester, so learning to not sleep through my alarm despite exacerbated time zone differences post-transition was quite the challenge. Teachers should find ways to personalize their lesson plans so that each and every student has the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge through synchronous and/or asynchronous means.Technical issues are inevitable, since for many teachers, this upcoming school year will be their first time coordinating their curriculum entirely online. Performing test runs before the first day of school and keeping an open communication channel with IT are great ways to be proactive in the face of uncertainty. Teachers will also be tempted to assign more work or overestimate the amount of time students can delegate to their schoolwork. Thus, it’s crucial for educators to acknowledge the traumatic nature of the unprecedented circumstances we’re all enduring and be mindful of students’ mental health, not just their academic performance, because of its inextricable relationship with productivity.

A source of comfort for many is the fact that we’re all experiencing the upheaval that the pandemic has brought to our lives together. Considering the pandemic has shown to have an exacerbated impact on the lives of low-income, marginalized minority groups though, we’re all charting the same choppy waters in different boats. With this communal understanding comes patience. Students cannot fully fathom the difficulties that educators face and vice versa. Amidst this mutual ignorance should hopefully come understanding and empathy. Burnout is looming for both parties. I definitely experienced it last semester, and I hope to be more conscious about my mental health, as we all should be, this semester. We must unite to support each other and view this school year as a collaborative effort, not a competition. We must strive to not only survive, but thrive in unpredictability.