The challenges of online learning in the COVID era


The International Day of Education, celebrated on the 24th of January, promotes education worldwide. This year, the celebration is marked by the online learning and the challenges teachers and students have faced during the lockdown because of the Covid pandemic

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, Nelson Mandela said. 

With the coronavirus pandemic, it is our world that has drastically changed, as well as the education of millions of students. Classrooms, usually full of colorful handicrafts and life, have been substituted by laptop screens in rooms. “You have 32 teenagers on the screen, trying to make questions, trying to communicate. But teenagers are in a moment of life when they need to interact with other people. They need to feel somehow ‘protected’ and ‘guided’ by adults”, Clàudia Segura, a High School teacher from Barcelona (Spain) said.

According to the study The likely impact of COVID-19 on education, students are likely to experience a learning loss during the lockdown. “First, there is evidence showing that quarantined students tend to spend less time in learning compared to when schools are open. Second, many students confined at home due to COVID-19 may feel stressed and anxious, and this may negatively affect their ability to concentrate on schoolwork”, the study states.

Connection issues and the digital gap

Segura explains that Generalitat (the Catalan Government) gave the option to ask for a computer for those students who didn’t have it. But the Internet connection problems were constant and some families had fewer means. “In a call with more than 30 students, there was not a day in which someone didn’t have connection problems. They couldn’t hear, or the microphones or the cameras weren’t working…”, she adds. Improvisation became essential for teachers. Segura explains that she always had to prepare a plan B in case something didn’t work.

Distance learning, online education. (shangarey / Adobe Stock)

Not all students and families had the chance to access these platforms, making the digital gap and the socioeconomic differences more obvious. “These online courses can be unfair to children that cannot afford Internet connection and equipment. In addition, kids with special educational needs couldn’t prepare themselves. They couldn’t understand why and how these rapid changes came to their lives”, states Georgios (a fictional name because he prefers to remain in anonymity), a primary school teacher from Thessaloniki for kids with special educational needs. In the case of these children, face-to-face interaction is very important. With the lockdown it wasn’t easy to ensure their education.

It is easy to get distracted

Students get distracted more easily. It is difficult for teachers to understand what is happening on the other side of the screen. “My pupils are 14-15-16 year old, they are often immature. Studying is not in the forefront of their minds, so they often get distracted without me being able to do anything about it”, Arianna Merlin, a teacher from a High School in Piemonte (Italy), explains.

One of the biggest challenges was to get to know students without seeing them in the classroom. “I started directly in distance learning and since the beginning of the year, I have seen them a total of ten days in the classroom. The difficult thing is to get to know the students at a distance, to establish a relationship of mutual trust and respect in order to set up a fruitful educational dialogue” Merlin states. Another problem she observed was they sometimes spent too many hours of the day using technology and computers. It is also important to disconnect from the ‘digital’ world.

The evaluation process was very challenging and did not allow to observe the student’s needs and evolution. “It is easy for them to cheat on tests or questions at a distance. It is therefore difficult to see the pupils’ real difficulties”, Merlin exemplifies.

Loneliness among teachers and students

Technology is supposed to be connecting our world more than ever. But it sometimes creates the opposite effect. With the COVID, social distancing has been necessary. In the case of online learning, most of the students felt lonely and missed being in contact with their classmates and teachers. “The lockdown period made students feel very lonely and it was easy to perceive that the atmosphere was not very cheerful”, Segura explains.

Students and teachers felt lonely during the lockdown (Cigna)

This loneliness also affected the concentration ability of the students and their motivation. “This teaching system can only be an emergency tool. But is not suitable for the long term. I perceive in my students a growing demotivation due to the long isolation”, Merlin suggests.

But not only students were lonely. Some teachers also felt that they were missing guidance. For Segura, it was her first year as a High School teacher and she couldn’t finish the course in the classrooms because the lockdown started. “I feel that the first year you need your colleagues and ‘superiors’ to guide you. Although my colleagues tried to help me as much as they could, telematic communication doesn’t work 100%”, she explains.

Students have missed their classmates. But in some cases, their bond with their families has improved, especially among children with special educational needs. In their case, they now even prefer staying with their families than going to school. “The failure of our educational system happened when the statistics showed that special education kids are becoming better in their behavior and that they feel safer staying home with their families than going to school” Georgios affirms.

An extra effort from the teachers

There are different views about the support that teachers received depending on the country and on their personal experiences. In some cases, teachers had to make an extra effort to prepare the classes, investing time and energy.

A lesson in a classroom (UNESCO Bangkok)

They also took several preparation courses.“Teachers in Greece had to participate in an online program, which I feel didn’t prepare us well. During the first days, the system we used failed very often. We also had some issues with organizing and creating a schedule in order to make everyone feel safe and secure: children and teachers”, Georgios states.

The lack of institutional and governmental support was one of the main problems that Georgios encountered. The greatest difficulty to me was that the Greek Government tried to put the problem to the teachers, instead of solving it themselves”, Georgios explains. Besides, he feels that generalist media contributed to spreading the ‘governmental’ view. “Psychologically, the hardest thing was that all the newspapers and the generalist channels said that everything was fine. But in Greece, there are two realities: there is the reality that you live and experience and there is the reality they show”, Georgios affirms.

“The school is a place where meaningful experiences are made”

Although Internet connection problems are often present, online learning has some positive aspects as well. “Sometimes the opportunities are greater because it’s easier to offer multimedia content. We don’t have an interactive whiteboard in class. You can see the students’ work in real-time”, Merlin explains.

However, teachers agree that online learning is acceptable for some months, but that it cannot replace the presence of students in the classroom. Students do not learn only through books and classes, but also through experiences. “After all, school is not just about passing on knowledge, but a place where meaningful experiences are made, where people learn and grow”, Merlin concludes.

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