How online schooling is impacting students
When a new virus causing the disease called COVID-19 began circulating across the globe at the end of 2019, talk of closing public spaces to lessen the spread became more and more realistic - something that seemed inconceivable in American Society.
Fast forward to 2021, and that inconceivable idea became a reality for the country. After a full year of dealing with the crippling effects of COVID-19 that involved adapting daily lives to primarily an online existence - from zoom board meetings to online grocery shopping to remote learning - America and its institutions are beginning to see the impact of the changes that were required to save lives.
One institution in particular, education, considered one of the more important social institutions in society, was largely disrupted by the pandemic. The ways in which the pandemic has impacted education in not only the past year but in the future is continuing to be observed, and after the one year anniversary of most schools shifting online, student recounts of their productivity levels and mental health states are beginning to shine light on the effects of the change.
COVID-19 protocols require transforming schooling across the country
In the United States, where more than 55 million students are enrolled in primary and secondary schools, and almost 19.7 million students in college and university, the decision to close buildings and go to online education was as swift as the virus levels rose.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put out the first warning for schools in February, marking the beginning of a mass halt for schooling in the country.
The National Center for Education Statistics mapped the closures throughout the beginning of 2020, noting that almost every state either ordered or recommended that schools remain closed through the end of the 2019-2020 school year resulting in a near total lockdown across the nation.
With each new development of the virus, the decision process for schools to choose going remote, staying closed and then eventually reopening their facilities in a safe but productive way was largely controversial as each state grappled with a response to the rise and fall of COVID-19 cases throughout the 2020 school year.
Measures of academic performance in the shift to online learning
A student's academic performance in a traditional classroom setting versus distance learning is not a new topic of discussion, as virtual schools have become a more common alternative to in-person instruction in the past 20 years.
While one-third of all U.S. college students had some type of online course experience before the pandemic, 2020 was new territory for a large number of students and faculty.
The main concerns of a student's academic performance in a transition such as this could be categorized as levels of focus, motivation and incentive, and difficulty understanding new concepts.
These measurements of performance also prove difficult to make assumptions about because of how much they can vary by individual, as well as subject matter getting taught.
Marinella Griffith, a language teaching professor at the College of Charleston, believes the online experience for students in a language course, where listening and speaking in the language is key to mastering, is harder than a lecture based course like history.
“Yes, because learning a language is not just hearing: its visual with lips gestures, its conversing, doing activities it is interactive- I think language teaching is more challenging”
Griffith says she is definitely worried her students lost some comprehension through online learning, but she’s still hopeful.
“Of course, I worry about that everyday. I am always concerned. I always try to find activities and find things that make them less bored. But I am concerned that some won’t retain as much as others and it's harder from others. Some students prefer it because they work at their own pace but for the majority they are doing the best that they can.”
The stark difference between the traditional classroom setting and whichever setting students choose to use for their online learning space changes a professor's control over the distractions of the classroom, especially with the option for students to turn their cameras off when in a class session.
This change in classroom setting dynamics and level of personal freedom puts a responsibility on the students to ignore the distractions of the space where they are and provide their attention towards their professor, their peers, and the work at hand.
Avery Yunger, a sophomore at the College of Charleston, found it difficult to focus at all times with the temptation of a phone, roommates, and other distractions.
“When you're in a classroom there is an expectation to stay off your phone and not talk to your classmates while a professor is teaching, but on Zoom when many people have their cameras off and everyone is on mute, it is hard to adhere to the expectations from before.”
Lowering levels of motivation among a global crisis is also a factor that may be attributed to issues in academic performance of all ages, but specifically among higher education students who are also juggling an impending transition after college to the workforce.
This was evident specifically for the graduating class of 2020, who unknowingly walked into their last classes in their current school earlier during the spring semester than anticipated.
Tate Wallace, a recent College of Charleston graduate, reflected on the upheaval of her and her peers' plans for the last months of college and plans for the future in bitter nostalgia.
“I found it difficult to finish the year strong in my classes while worrying about whether I would get a job once it was over. I was watching the news and seeing so many people losing their jobs everyday from the pandemic.”
An individual's mental health also contributes to their performance, which is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.
The factors that are an effect of remote learning and the state of living due to COVID-19 as a whole include loss of interaction, isolation, and anxiety for many adhering to the strict social distancing guidelines.
In the setting of higher education, students normally live off campus or in campus dormitory style living.
When institutions such as the College of Charleston transitioned to remote learning in the spring of 2020, they also encouraged students living in dormitory style housing to return home unless special circumstances existed. This trend followed incoming freshmen into Fall of 2020, with the college delaying move in for residential students.
These delays led many students to miss out on a regularly programmed sense of interaction in a new setting, especially with COVID protocols in place that limited social gatherings. For students who are already living off campus with roommates, there semt to be a different story.
Alex Pierce, a senior at the College of Charleston, explained that living with roommates made it easier for her to grapple with some of the mental health issues that were expected of students in higher education.
“I think I surprisingly have made it easier, our roommates all have routines, she said, adding that living with students experiencing the same unprecedented situation had an influence on her own experience by providing a small sense of comfort and close knit community in absence of the community of her college.”
The uncertainty of the future among so much change and disruption of normal life has created a world-wide uncertainty among people and a tremendous level of stress among students in particular, which can lead to high anxiety levels.
With 63% of college students reporting high anxiety during college before the pandemic began, mental health was already a concern for young people before pandemic began.
As vaccines roll out across the country and life slowly returns to normal, many students are looking forward to resuming their normal college experience.
Anna Hardie, a sophomore at the College of Charleston is excited for the opportunity to spend time with her friends safely and experience the college she loves so much again.
“I never thought I would say I was excited to walk onto campus and go into a big auditorium classroom at 9 AM, but after this past year I can not be excited enough.”