Education

A Closer Look at Distance Learning

Is virtual education a viable option for students and teachers?

Posted Mar 03, 2021

The blackboard might look a little fuzzy from a distance, but before you chalk it up to poor vision, it might be time to take a closer look. Distance education has been around for centuries, originally in the form of correspondence courses via mail. Technological advances have led to a combination of online course delivery systems using computers and the Internet. The dramatic rise in online education began to emerge at the beginning of the 21st century and has continued to increase in popularity (Dumford & Miller, 2018). The convenience, flexibility, and accessibility of this form of education is appealing to students and has contributed to its growth and mainstream status. 

We’ve come a long way in recent years with the introduction of various online learning platforms and more diversified course content. We’re truly living in a virtual world and this has become even more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Physical distancing is currently the norm and it has infiltrated all aspects of our lives, including the way we learn. The delivery of virtual learning has been put to the test as we navigate the demands of educating students outside of the walls of the classroom. The results of this experiment have yet to be revealed and there are many unanswered questions still hanging in the balance.

The Psychosocial Impact of Virtual Learning During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an unexpected change to distance learning. The physical separation of teachers and students necessitated an overhaul of the traditional classroom. Most educational institutions were forced to convert to remote learning for students of all ages and grade levels. When this occurred last spring, many schools were academically unprepared while others devoted time to creating more comprehensive online programs. The social and psychological impact on students was of great concern leading to an effort to maintain student engagement and connectedness (Weir, 2021). 

For some college students and faculty, the transition to online learning was not a major shift. A number of courses were already being offered online, so this was an extension of those existing programs. Nonetheless, students had to immediately relocate from college campuses in the middle of the spring semester. A study of first-year college students at the University of Vermont revealed negative effects on emotional functioning and wellness behaviors, with concerns for their own health and those of loved ones (Copeland, McGinnis, Bai, Adams, Nardone, Devadanam, Rettew, & Hudziak, 2021). This unexpected disruption was also associated with increased levels of stress and alcohol use among college students (Charles, Strong, Burns, Bullerjahn & Serafine, 2021).

 Jan Vašek/Pixabay
Student completing online coursework
Source: Jan Vašek/Pixabay

Parental concerns about the psychological well-being of children have been at the forefront during the pandemic. The absence of physical contact from teachers and friends substituted by computer screens is both an academic and mental health stressor. In addition, the caregiver-child relationship itself has shifted with the demands of social isolation and pressures to cope with the harsh realities of COVID-19. Some children have adapted more readily, while others have suffered the negative consequences of remote learning. Children with intellectual or physical disabilities are at a disadvantage in this type of environment as virtual learning generally fails to meet their needs (Miller, 2021). 

Technological Adaptations

The abrupt change to remote learning has created a number of issues related to technological requirements. Economic and educational disparities have become highly evident during this conversion process. Not all students have access to computers, internet connections may be unreliable, and compatibility with certain browsers may impede access to course materials (Adedoyin & Soykan, 2020). Technological glitches are inevitable and create an additional source of frustration and anxiety in an already complicated situation. College students, as well as K-12 students have been affected, despite more familiarity with online learning environments (Weir, 2021). 

Both students and teachers in elementary, middle school, and high school have been faced with significant challenges. The adaptation to teaching over video takes time to master and has both advantages and disadvantages. It offers a number of useful resources for screen sharing and annotation tools that enable teachers to actively engage with students. On the other hand, being on Zoom all day can become tiresome for children with limited attention spans. A structured learning environment is generally more appropriate, particularly for younger children who are easily distracted. It’s also difficult for teachers and parents to monitor their behavior at all times and provide the proper discipline. This highlights the necessity to make remote learning enjoyable as well as instructive to improve interest and motivation

Mental Health and Learning Issues

Distance learning also entails finding novel approaches to establish a welcoming environment and make children feel safe and supported. Creating a meaningful connection to teachers and other classmates is not easily attainable in a virtual format (Weir, 2020). This is extremely critical during the pandemic as children and adolescents are experiencing heightened anxiety and feelings of isolation. The loss of a concrete support network of fellow classmates and teachers has left a significant void in their lives. According to research studies, prolonged loneliness and separation can lead to suicidal thoughts, self-harm, and severe depression (Miller, 2021). The warning signs may not be recognized or adequately addressed in time to meet these pressing needs.

Behavioral and mental health services have been limited or absent during the closing of schools. Since children have been particularly vulnerable to trauma during the pandemic, mental health support should not be relegated as secondary to attaining academic success (Phelps & Sperry, 2020). As students return to in-person learning, attention to their emotional needs will be just as important as their academic needs. Moreover, teachers themselves have experienced excessive burnout from anxieties about their own health, the well-being of students, the demands of remote learning, and uncertainty about the future of their educational institutions (Weir, 2020).

Learning styles are also a consideration in the effort to accommodate all types of learners. Children who are visual learners may benefit the most from online classes, as opposed to tactile or kinesthetic learners who thrive better in a hands-on environment. Activities that address different modes of learning are necessary to channel the various types of perception. This poses a distinct problem for teachers in the online classroom who are limited by physical distance and techniques that are not transferable. There may also be less time to provide personalized attention to students who are falling behind. Many parents have been called upon to supplement what is lacking, or have hired tutors to help with improving academic performance. 

Chuck Underwood/Pixabay
Mother helping child with virtual learning
Source: Chuck Underwood/Pixabay

Online Teaching Challenges

Beyond the computer-related issues, students and teachers are confronted with major adjustments in course delivery. Even when technical issues have been resolved, some students have not shown up for class (Weir, 2021). The teaching skills required for online learning differ from those in a classroom setting and many educators have not been trained in this area. Learning new practices and strategies is difficult, particularly when there is limited time to adjust to this teaching modality. Strong communication, organization, and time management skills are crucial, in addition to incorporating innovative ways to engage students. Standard curriculums may not translate well in an online format, so this entails designing new components or making revisions. Maintaining an active presence, as well as creative teaching techniques are key elements for successful outcomes in remote learning formats. 

Implementing Future Improvements

One positive aspect to all this may be a concerted effort to improve the quality and availability of online education. The pandemic has taken its toll on the educational system and many students have received unsatisfactory instruction. This has been a lost academic year in numerous ways and the weaknesses in the current system have been revealed. It’s time to repair these deficits and provide more equitable resources and culturally competent distance learning courses. It’s possible that we may be faced with a similar situation in the future, so proactive measures are imperative. Furthermore, many schools may continue to offer more virtual learning options since the building blocks have already been implemented. 

My own personal experience as an online faculty instructor has taught me that there is always room for improvement. Teachers must be able to provide enrichment to supplement the required course material. This entails consistent communication and feedback to maintain student engagement in the learning goals and objectives. Interaction among students is also a necessity for creating a collaborative atmosphere and a feeling of connectedness. The aim is to establish active participation to ensure that students do not become passive observers in the virtual learning environment.

Teachers and administrators have now been reminded about the importance of effective distance education programs. Virtual reality has the power to transform education if we utilize this technology to our advantage. Teaching skills must be upgraded to meet the changing needs of students in this evolving learning environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the realization that teachers require additional training and resources in order to excel in the virtual classroom. What is the value of advanced technology if educators are unable to foster learning and inspire students in a meaningful way?

There is a great deal of ground to be made up following this fragmented period of inadequate schooling. We now have the opportunity and responsibility to reevaluate what works and what doesn’t. It has been predicted that students in grades three to eight will return to school with only about 70% of learning gains in reading and 50% of learning gains in math (Weir, 2020). Remote learning and digital education are here to stay and play a significant role in our current educational system.

The challenge is to deliver remote learning without having students feel remote and removed in the process. More individualized course content for students is imperative to accommodate their specific interests and learning styles. It’s evident that online courses need to be developed or revamped to ensure that students receive a high standard of education. A new paradigm can elevate the status of virtual learning to dispel the myth that it is somehow inferior to traditional education.

In the midst of this education crisis, take note of this important quote by author George Couros: “Technology is not just a tool. It can give learners a voice that they may not have heard before.”

References

Adedoyin, O.B., & Soykan, E. (2020). Covid-19 pandemic and online learning: The challenges and opportunities. Interactive Learning Environments. Retrieved from:https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10494820.2020.1813180

Charles, N.E., Strong, S.J., Burns, L.C., Bullerjahn, M.R., & Serafine, K.M. (2021). Increased mood disorder symptoms, perceived stress, and alcohol use among college students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychiatry Research, 296. Retrieved from:

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2021.113706

Copeland, W.E., McGinnis, E., Bai, Y. Adams, Z., Nardone, H., Devadanam, V., Rettew, J., & Hudziak, J.J. (2021). Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on college student mental health and wellness. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 60 (1), 134-141. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2020.08.466

Dumford, A.D. & Miller, A.L. (2018). Online learning in higher education: Exploring advantages and disadvantages for engagement. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 30, 452-465. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s12528-018-9179-z.

Miller, L. (2021, November 23-December 6). Children of quarantine. New York Magazine, 44-51.

Phelps, C., & Sperry, L. L. (2020). Children and the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(S1), S73-S75. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000861.

Weir, K. (2020, September). What did distance learning accomplish? Monitor on Psychology, 55-59.

Weir, K. (2021, January-February). The great distance learning experiment continues. Monitor on Psychology, 61-63.