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  • As schools reopen, students and teachers reflect on online learning challenges 
  • When every child did not experience the same opportunities over these last 20 months, who will be filling the gaps?
  • Children and teachers experienced a unique array of problems, similar to those faced by children in less developed countries across the world. 

 

Schools are finally open again after almost 20 months of online learning.
The Director-General of Health Services has detailed how and when schools would re-open and examinations are held. Children of Grades 6, 7, 8 and 9, who were not permitted to attend school, will be doing so this week.
The struggles to adapt to a new system of learning have been many. But now that on-site classes are being held again, will schools go back to the old methods? Or will teachers and students seek more creative ways to learn? 
More importantly, when every child did not experience the same opportunities over these last 20 months, who will be filling the gaps? 
Globally, students, who have been learning online since the beginning of social restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, have encountered new experiences both physically and mentally due to the change in their education system. 

"Copying a note from the whiteboard was only good to be done in school but surely not online. Each student can view the whiteboard via the camera according to the clearness and the quality of the device screen and network. If it doesn’t appear we’ll have to ask the teacher to share it on our class group or ask a friend to share"

For almost two years, we’ve been listening to varied opinions which show that the way each student deals with it differs from one to another. 
Change in behaviour, more or sometimes less interest in studies, taking up higher education after having abandoned it for a while or taking-up interest in making the utmost use of pandemic restrictions, are a few common aspects of the great change the world experienced since the dawn of 2020. 


In Sri Lanka however, children and teachers experienced a unique array of problems, similar to those faced by children in less developed countries across the world. 
While accessibility to devices and connectivity have taken up more space in this discussion, a particular segment of children in Sri Lanka, specifically the G.C.E Ordinary and Advanced Level students have much to offer to this discussion. 

"It was of course easy to finish the syllabus with online learning. But when you can’t see your full class or notice that children don’t attend, it is of no value"

With the uncertainty of these times, children waiting to sit crucial exams, in particular, have been more or less harassed by the pandemic like no other. 
The anxieties of not knowing when an exam is going to be held can be stressful for both teachers and students. The Daily Mirror spoke to students who shared their virtual experiences to shed light on just how physically and mentally drained students and teachers have been for over two years. 

Interaction takes a blow

Interaction, a key aspect of social learning during the formative years of a child’s life has taken a severe blow. With unusual circumstances, initially online interaction seemed to be very difficult for both parties. 
Most students and teachers found that it is not as effective as having a direct discussion or explanation about the lesson in a class. 


According to one student, they had almost given up on clarifying their doubts during a virtual meeting as either they found it hard to explain or they couldn’t be heard clearly due to technical issues. 
This ultimately had become a major disadvantage for students to engage in proper learning. 
“Clearing our doubts from teachers has been so difficult since last year. What we mostly do is separately send our doubts recorded as a voice note or picture format after the session is over. This is time-consuming as there’s extra work to be done with it,” one Ordinary Level (O/L) class student said. 
There is a decline of grasping ability among students where at times teachers found that they had to explain the lesson material repeatedly. 

"From a teacher’s perspective, children are not really learning unless they can communicate back to the teacher by way of a question, a gesture, even a look or just by the way they sit"

Some believe that the main reason for this ‘brain fog’ is the extra stress to the eyes caused by hours of staring at the screen.
Some said that the comfort offered by the home set-up had made students a little lazier to interact. The knowledge of having no teacher or principal around them to be supervised adds an extra layer of comfort to the online learning experience, which can affect each student differently. 


Some students said they were reluctant to interact at times when the teacher seemed to be too strict or exerted their stress on the students by dumping them with a load of work to complete in a short time. 
“Some teachers even resorted to removing students from the online meeting without a valid reason. This too has caused anxiety in students which led to underperformance the subject and also to lose interest in conversing with the teacher,” one student shared. 


“One of my teachers who was over-strict has made me join that lesson just for the sake of taking part. Other than that there’s nothing that I gained from the session,” one O/L student stated.
For others, they don’t interact during class, simply because they don’t feel like it. 
“I don’t feel responsible while attending an online class as I know that I can take control of myself in any way I like. Even if I’m asked a question by the teacher, I might not respond most of the time. Either it is because I know the teacher will pass the question to another student or I am not actually concentrating on the lesson,” one student said. 

"In my experience, the online learning environment is where a teacher is just talking, and hopefully presenting a lesson to a blank screen,” said one teacher in charge of Advanced Level (A/L) students"

For others, it is the little changes that are causing them greater difficulty. 
“Copying a note from the whiteboard was only good to be done in school but surely not online. Each student can view the whiteboard via the camera according to the clearness and the quality of the device screen and network. If it doesn’t appear we’ll have to ask the teacher to share it on our class group or ask a friend to share,” one student said. 

Children missing out on social cues

We asked several teachers who have been taking the virtual classes since 2020 about what this period has meant to them. 
Many teachers said that it was the teachers who conducted lessons who were the most active during any online class.
“The virtual setup has changed almost everything,” many teachers said. 
“It was of course easy to finish the syllabus with online learning. But when you can’t see your full class or notice that children don’t attend, it is of no value. 


“From a teacher’s perspective children are not really learning unless they can communicate back to the teacher by way of a question, a gesture, even a look or just by the way they sit. 
“In my experience, the online learning environment is where a teacher is just talking, and hopefully presenting a lesson to a blank screen,” said one teacher in charge of Advanced Level (A/L) students. 
A classroom is not just a learning environment, but also offers all-important social learning for youngsters during their formative years. 


“The interactions we all need in a physical classroom -talking, laughing, learning to be patient with others, helping out those that may not be as capable as we are -is missing in the virtual classroom, these are the things which are missing,” one teacher said. 
“Teachers work blindly talking to a group of children not knowing who their students are, what they are going through or where they are sitting.” 


Despite some success stories many teachers are not fully convinced that online teaching has been successful. 
“We need interaction. In the beginning for me as a teacher, I did not know what these apps are and how to operate them. And since we could not see the kids physically, it was terrible teaching and getting them to respond.
“I know that kids have been in the class virtually but they were not there in the lesson wholeheartedly. Behind the screen, what could not have happened?” One teacher asked. 


Almost all students and teachers can relate to this feeling, we discovered. 
The lack of friendly conversations and gestures made during a direct class is another reason that has made the virtual interaction poorer. Yet, some students feel much comfortable with online classes. 
However, some parents and teachers have observed that some children seem to be more active during online lessons and has started to spend more time with studies compared to how they were in school. 
Some said that some students have been able to better organise themselves and allocate more time for self-studies.

Tech troubles 

As soon as plans to conduct virtual lessons were made, teachers and students were informed about how the virtual sessions were to take place. However many recalled how panicked they were, as this was completely new.
To date, it remains one of their biggest challenges. 


The fact is that not everyone is aware of handling the online learning system and not everyone can have access to digital devices, which is now the accepted platform for learning. But for those who struggle with access to devices or connectivity, were also found to struggle mentally to adapt to the new pedagogy. 


“During an online class, the most heard phrases are ‘Can you hear me?’ Or ‘Please mute your microphone’ rather than listening to our teacher explaining the subject to us. 
It is really hard to follow up whenever there’s too much noise disturbance or break in a voice due to technical issues,” one O/L student said. 


“My laptop stopped working in the beginning of last year (2020) so I had to join all my online classes on my phone which still seems to be stressful. Even though I borrowed a laptop from a friend of mine, that too didn’t turn out to be useful as it was a second-hand device. I don’t want to be troubling my parents during a tough time like this. It will surely be an extra expense for them which is why I have decided to manage attending classes on my phone for as long as possible,” another O/L student said.


“Where I live, we hardly have access to the internet, therefore I had to move to one of my relatives’ places and stay there so that I can take part in online classes without any network interruptions. Some of my friends climbed up the hillocks to get a good reception to learn online,” one A/L student said. 

Changes in pedagogy

Online learning is not without its benefits. Owing mostly to the creativity of teachers and students, many have been able to find new ways to cover lessons effectively and interestingly.
For an instance, instead of the assignments and monthly assessments that were given during direct classes which is a bit more formal; nowadays teachers can set online quizzes, Q&A sessions, polls, virtual group work ( eg. performing a drama related to the subject ) are a few fascinating aspects of online learning. Some educators believe it has eased work for both parties. This has also contributed to getting students to work more on their other talents.


“I see my students participating happily in the online quizzes that I conduct often. This makes me wish I could cling to the new pedagogy as I feel that it’s made learning interesting for students even during a time of uncertainty like this.” one teacher in charge of an O/L class said. 


“For me, I find this online system so convenient. I can do the lessons in my comfort. Some kids can focus. For them, it is effective. Less tiring too,” another teacher said. 
It is no secret by now that the pandemic has caused both adults and children a number of mental health struggles. But for kids with crucial examinations on the horizon, the struggle has been more profound. 
Social media plays a major role in spreading news faster than any other medium in recent times. So when rumours and false information about school closures or openings, changes in the syllabus or even false reports about the GCE examinations spread instantaneously, the impact on their mental wellbeing can often go unnoticed. 

Physical and mental wellness 

Undoubtedly students started to encounter various illnesses during e-learning. Although mental health effewcts are at higher risk in comparison to bodily issues; still it is important to take necessary care and work on remedies to be cured.


Eyesight issues, headaches (migraine) and feeling lethargic are the effects mostly identified which happens due to continuous screen staring. Students mention that sometimes it is hard to do self-studies due to these illnesses which made them lose concentration.
The physical manifestation of mounting mental pressure is another common symptom among students in recent times. 
The change in the learning system itself seems to pressure students as they find it quite difficult to allocate time accordingly. 


Managing to attend online classes despite the difficulties in their surroundings, and trying to complete homework within a short period are two key reasons that cause pressure. 
Apart from these, postural illnesses like Postural Tachycardia Syndrome has seemed to be developed due to constant sitting in a place. e-learning is mostly done sitting in the same spot for a few hours unlike in school where students get to move around the classroom or walk up to another classroom for subjects. 
Many students opined that it would have been better, had the teachers given short breaks during online learning so that they could quickly relax their body and mind which would help them concentrate better.

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