Pitfalls of remote learning
We are a year and a half into remote learning, being one of only five countries that have not resumed in-person classes since the pandemic started. As a teacher, I must confess that I’m still not used to it. On one hand, there is an illusion of convenience. I have no traffic to wrestle with and I can opt to wear slightly more comfortable clothes. The wonders of Zoom have also allowed me to skip wearing makeup altogether—the studio effects feature literally plasters eyebrows and lipstick on my face.
But I daresay the convenience ends there. In the beginning, out of well-meaning intentions, our university strongly encouraged us to adopt asynchronous learning to accommodate students with limited access to the internet. This meant creating self-administered modules and requirements. After one semester, my students all requested to return to live classes as they found the lack of structure and deadlines to be demotivating and a hindrance to their productivity. They also missed the experience of being among their professors and classmates, something that modules did not provide.
In my past research on disasters, I saw that student survivors valued their identity as students. They craved returning to school as it harkened back to a time when things were normal. School also gave them a sense of purpose and meaning, as it required hard work from them.
In the first semester of the pandemic, which was cut short midway through, requirement deadlines were extended by a whole year—again, out of compassion. This created a painful pileup as students had a hard time dealing with three semesters’ worth of requirements by the end of that extension. You see, the academic calendar kept rolling and more advanced classes had to be taken, despite students not having completed the more basic courses. So, yes, they were given a one-year extension to finish their requirements—but they didn’t know how because teaching was aborted the moment the pandemic hit. They were allowed to proceed to the next class despite not having finished the previous one, which made it more difficult to grasp these next-level concepts, which then further increased frustration and demotivation.
By the end of that first academic year, a lot of students shared that they felt they hadn’t learned anything and that all they were doing was submitting requirements. They stopped being learners and became requirement-submitting robots. This is heartbreaking to hear as a teacher; I aspire to instill learning as a value to my students, something more important than compliance or chasing after a certain grade. My joy is seeing them get excited about what they’re learning, or when they realize they have just mastered a skill. It’s a bonus to be able to help someone realize what it is they want to do or what kind of person they want to be.
Excitement and passion for learning became the collateral damage of pandemic-era education. This pandemic has exposed the limitations of the traditional education system: One size fits all does not work. Pre-pandemic education was already failing some of our students, as they needed more structure and support than a large classroom and a standard pacing could provide. Remote learning also did not provide optimized learning for a significant number of students who benefit from studying with others and being able to interact organically with the teacher. Some students also need the full ambient learning environment, not just a screen on their desks. The informal chats in between classes (or sneaked in when the teacher is not looking) are vital to sustain motivation for learning.
Well-meaning policies can sometimes be the more destructive ones. Shortsighted compassion can lead to more suffering. Often, education policies focus on the delivery of content and evaluating students on this content. We need to also recognize the value of motivation in learning. By designing physical and social environments, curricula, and teaching methods that foster motivation to learn, we can ensure that students will be able to create their own study strategy (because they would actually want to study!) that fits them. This enthusiasm for learning will serve them well beyond school as it helps them craft and pursue their goals. Designing for motivation requires that our policies are flexible but with structure, supportive but not fragilizing, and pushing for both excellence and compassion.
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