by Sophie Corcoran
Thursday, 22
July 2021

Online learning was a disaster for my generation

As the school year ends, students and teachers need to recommit to real classrooms
by Sophie Corcoran
It’s really no match for a classroom. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

Now that the school year — one of the strangest ever — is nearly over, it’s time to think about what has happened to education during the pandemic.

By April last year Covid lockdowns had forced 1.6 billion children out of schools and universities worldwide. This was a cause for joy in some quarters. In May 2020, New York governor Andrew Cuomo questioned why physical classrooms still existed at all, and he announced that Bill Gates would help rethink education in the state. Across LinkedIn, posts proliferated claiming that a “long overdue” marriage between education and technology had finally arrived.

It was notable that most of the people celebrating these changes were not those on the sharp end of them — students, or even teachers.

In the UK, the Government was quick to fund digital technologies in schools. By April 2020, it announced a plan to provide free technical training in Google and Microsoft education digital tools. More than 6,500 primary and secondary schools in England signed up. Since then, some 2.4 million new user accounts have been created for the two platforms.

For secondary school children, remote learning became an uncomfortable way of life. An A-Level student who began studying in September 2019 will have spent a quarter of their course learning from home. And now, during the so-called “pingdemic”, a further million students — over 14.4% of state-funded school children —  have once again been confined to their homes in the last week alone.

As a Year 13 student, my personal experience of online learning leaves me convinced that it can’t replace real classrooms. Yes, we were able, just about, to continue our studies during the pandemic. But pupils in all age ranges struggled with the impact of the digital classroom. Many felt isolated. Many felt unable to communicate properly with their peers, or their teachers. Our school tried its best, yet many of us us felt inadequately supported.

So I was not surprised to read a report by ImpactEd that showed how damaging remote learning was last year. The report found significant challenges in three areas: student motivation, teacher workload and student wellbeing. In fact, only 34% of surveyed UK pupils had felt actively motivated during remote learning, with the majority “neutral or actively disinterested.”

I know this is exactly how I felt this last year, dealing with the constant threat of school closures, or working on a laptop at home. All in all, as the school year comes to an end, every effort needs to be made to ensure use of online learning is minimised. Young people have faced their own peculiar and heavy burdens during this pandemic. For those of us who are leaving school now, much has been lost that can’t ever be recovered.

Join the discussion

  • Let me offer a somewhat heretical counter-stance. I absolutely accept that children and teens need the socialisation that school provides until around the end of A-levels. But …

    I have heard teachers and lecturers complain for over a year that teaching remotely is ‘not the same’. Ok, but no one is managing to articulate exactly what they are missing out, that is so critical. If it is the technology that is falling short, then say so in detailed terms – but I haven’t heard complaints along those lines.
    The dissatisfaction with both remote teaching and learning is typically expressed in the terms described here – and there are aspects of the objections I find incongruous. These are generations already so comfortable with socialising on computing devices, that they can type faster on a phone single handed (and not even using all the fingers), than I can on a full size keyboard after four decades of coding. They are already used to maintaining multiple streams and managing information flows. You would think they would take to remote learning like ducks to water. So what exactly is the seemingly impossible to articulate ‘missing piece’?

  • I suspect there are several missing pieces.
    For most kids, and as you note, socialization is important and I think they miss contact with their friends.
    For younger kids I think focus is the problem. They might be entirely comfortable navigating the internet but their ability to stay on task, especially an educational task they don’t find particularly interesting, is limited.
    For the older students, such as the author of this article, I think the subject matter they’re studying is difficult and they cannot explore challenging subject matter (such as math) with teachers as effectively on line as in person. The author studied for her A levels this past year. Having lived in the UK I know they are roughly equivalent to Advanced Placement courses in the US system. Those are tough courses, especially in the sciences, and I suspect one-on-one interaction with teachers is very helpful.
    Of course, we all sometimes find it difficult to articulate what’s truly bothering us. I suspect many of these complaints are, ultimately, motivated by kids who are absolutely sick of being stuck at home for such a long time. Just my 2 cents.

  • I read my kids’ school’s welcome pack for next year and one third of their teachers are “special educational needs” teachers. I was astounded. We had a tea time discussion on whether it is best for some kids to be in special schools. My kids are nice kids and happy to be friends with (some) of the challenging kids – but they are fed up with the disruptive behaviour (even though they understand the cause) as it is detrimental to their learning. Their must be a better way to do this.

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