A year ago, the coronavirus pandemic spread all over the world and took a toll on millions of lives. What we are now witnessing is a changing world; where social distancing is a norm, wearing masks is essential, and staying locked in homes is a daily routine.

In these turbulent times- businesses, offices, and schools have to continue functioning while in confinement. Everyone was and is still buzzing with confusion, uncertainty, and doubt on how to keep up with these important aspects of life. After all, protecting one’s self from the deadly virus is necessary while simultaneously accepting many major life changes.

One area of life which severely affected everyone, is work and education. The virus completely challenged the education system, which went through a major transformation. More than 1.2 billion students all across the world are now out of the classroom.

As a result, students and teachers all over the world have struggled to make sense of a new reality and tried to adjust to a completely new mode of learning.

A year later, the coronavirus refuses to dissipate and it does not look like things will go back to what they used to be, anytime soon. School and college education is likely to continue in this new dynamic. However, it is extremely important to understand its deeper, long-term impacts on students, their learning, and their mental state.

Let’s take a look at the various effects of the pandemic and new remote learning as well as the challenges faced by students. We will also discuss ways to improve classroom engagement and education.

Online classes

The coronavirus outbreak forced colleges and schools to close down. As a result, these institutions had to switch from traditional face-to-face classrooms to online meetings and lectures. The most common method used for online learning is video conferencing.

A number of applications like Zoom and Discord are being used for this purpose. The method is simple; everyone in the class logs in to the video meeting at a pre-scheduled time, and then the online class begins. Teachers host the meetings and can use various methods to engage the students through different online features.

For Zoom users, there are a number of chat tools available, and even screen annotation is possible which allows users to make text boxes, free-form pen drawings, shapes, and more. In order to replicate the traditional classroom, there is also a “raise hand” feature that students can click on, to indicate that they would like to say something.

With time, these applications are frequently updating and improving to further optimize their functionality as online classroom channels.

Effectiveness of Remote Learning

When the right technology is used, remote learning has significant potential as an effective teaching method. In fact, online methods for teaching are quite strong and are the only way to foster learning in these tough times.

There are some major benefits of remote learning that must be taken into consideration. For starters, there is a lot of flexibility as it is a more student-oriented approach. In this technology-driven era, many students may find it interesting to study online using their own methods, as compared to a traditional teacher-centered classroom. The use of video, audio, text, and lecture can also make an engaging combination.

Research has found that students can retain up to 25-60% more material through e-learning, in comparison with 8-10% retention in the classroom. This is likely due to the fact that online classes allow them to learn faster.

Interestingly, it was also revealed that in online classes, students may take 40-60% less time to learn. They can learn the material at their own pace and spend less or more time on concepts they already know or do not know.

The effectiveness of remote learning also depends on the age-group of students. This is because students have different requirements according to their age. Younger children would need a more structured format and environment to garner the full benefits of e-learning. Teachers would also have to work harder to replicate a physical classroom for younger children, by using a variety of engagement tools.

In times of crisis like COVID-19, remote learning is the only way students can maximize their learning and knowledge, without having to compromise on their education.

Challenges of Remote Learning

There is no denying the fact that remote learning has numerous advantages. But at the same time, we need to assess the real-life application and use of e-learning while gauging how students feel about it.

Despite the availability and access to technologies for facilitating online education, is remote learning actually reliable? More specifically, are children actually ‘learning’ through these classes?

Firstly, there are some issues related to online education that can make remote learning quite difficult. For instance, technical errors and problems frequently arise while using modern technology. There can be hiccups in the internet connections used by teachers and students, which disrupt the learning process and the atmosphere of a class.

Furthermore, downloading or installation errors, problems with logging in, or audio/video-related issues can also impact the quality of learning.

Remote learning also comes with a few other challenges. It is more likely for students to feel bored and uninterested in an online classroom setting. Distractions at home can also be a common problem. Plus, regardless of the online facilities available, two-way communication is also decreased during remote learning.

As there is a lack of practical exercises, the course content can feel too theoretical and lecture-based; minimizing the potential of learning offered by online education. There may also be a lack of clear instructions and guidelines for assignments and tests. In addition, many students are not able to address their concerns in an online setting.

Remote learning also poses another issue for teachers, which is a lack of control over the students and their learning of course material. Without face-to-face interaction, the teacher may not be able to keep a check on each student and their progress. Students may even choose to leave the virtual class, without being held accountable. This results in reduced discipline and learning.

In a study conducted by Parkes et al in 2014, it was found that students were generally not prepared to balance family, work, and social lives while in an online learning environment. In addition, they were found to be ill-prepared for e-learning and usage of Learning Management Systems.

Student Anxiety

Due to the significant change in their education system, students are at the receiving end of major mental health issues.

According to a recent ‘Natural Association of Student Personnel Administrators’ survey conducted on 3500 students enrolled in four-year degree programs, there is a vast majority of college students struggling with elevated levels of anxiety.

The statistics are quite alarming, as 35% of the students reported feeling “somewhat anxious” about Covid-19. Whereas, 25% of students shared that they felt “slightly anxious” and 21% felt “very anxious.”

According to another survey by Strada-College Network, the biggest challenges students are facing this fall are related to their emotional well-being. Students also shared that self-doubt, instability, and uncertainty have become common themes in their lives due to the educational and career changes brought on by COVID-19.

Students identified anxiety, stress, and loneliness as the top issues they were facing. In fact, these mental challenges reportedly affected them even more than financial issues or workload management. It was also found that 71% of the students felt, “Online education is negatively affecting their ability to learn”.

A qualitative survey conducted by Livia Morris and Julia Morris, (graduates from the University of California) revealed personal struggles and experiences faced by students and recent graduates. Some students shared that they had a “strong aversion to online learning”.

The Director of Research for Strada, Nichole Torpey-Saboe was surprised at the high level of pessimism and negativity that surrounds online teaching and learning. College students are increasingly getting concerned about their academic success and are worrying about finding employment in the future.

Improving Classroom Engagement ; Online Education

These recent surveys and data are creating a bleak picture of the current educational system all over the world. However, we still cannot underestimate the perks of remote learning and the opportunities it offers.

It is important to realize that we are still new to this form of teaching and learning. In fact, the transition to online learning may even be a major catalyst in improving and reshaping digital education. It could also fuel innovation in the educational sector, ultimately boosting the digital skills of both teachers and students.

There are a number of ways teachers and students can unlock the full potential of e-learning, while improving classroom engagement and reducing the stress levels faced by students. Here are some helpful methods that teachers can use:

Meet for brief periods

Rather than meeting for hours every day, teachers can start meeting students more frequently and for smaller periods. ‘Chunk’ learning is more likely to keep students stimulated and engaged. Teachers could divide the same number of hours into smaller sessions.

Start the class with music

Teachers can start the class with soothing or energetic music playing in the background. Good music has the ability to set the tone and mood of the class. This would have the effect of calming down stressed or overwhelmed students, and ramp up their energy levels for the upcoming lesson.

In distance learning, you need to make children get into the mood to learn.

Use interactive videos

Another important tip is to start the class with a fun, educational, and interactive video. You could use a number of YouTube channels like ASAP Science, Crash Course, and Kurzgesagt to find interesting videos related to science, history, math, or English.

A visually stimulating video with colors and animations is more likely to capture students’ attention, instead of a simple, routine lecture.

You can ask students to watch the video before class begins and then ask them what they thought about it, before continuing with your lecture.

Good lighting ; sound

In order to improve the effectiveness of online learning, teachers should also improve the class atmosphere.

Crisp, high-quality audio with bright, pleasant lighting itself can make a big difference. Teachers can also use catchy transitions, Zoom backgrounds, and a range of fun tools to make activities more fun and appealing for children.

Design lessons that need participation

It is a fact that most teachers are already trying to encourage students to participate in online classes.

However, one useful approach would be to design lessons in a way that ‘requires’ students to participate. You can include graded, fun activities within the lesson to increase student engagement and interest.

Empower the student and give them a voice

Rather than focusing on your own lecture and slides, why not let the students practice more autonomy?

In the virtual classroom, giving students a voice and letting them take charge will keep things more interesting. Teachers can also let students choose how and what they wish to learn in the lesson.

Connect with students individually

It is increasingly important for students to be able to reach out to the teacher privately. Teachers must give this access to students and should connect with them individually.

One way to do this is to assign a week or day to each student for a private meeting. Allow students to share their progress, concerns, or any issues they may be facing in the classes.

Training teachers

To navigate this new era of digital teaching, it is not just the students that need extra help. Schools and colleges must focus on training their faculty and imparting the skills required to make remote learning a success. Workshops should be given to promote teaching styles tailored to the online classroom.

Furthermore, regular meetings should be held where teachers may discuss ideas and solutions with each other.

Final words

The changes and challenges brought on by COVID-19 were not anticipated by educators or students. It is important to realize that with schools and colleges shut down, our education systems cannot be the same again. This situation is equally new for all of us and at this point, we are still on a learning curve.

As the current demands keep changing, we need to focus on evolving and building our skills as educators and students. We need to find out ways to respond to the anxious feelings while fostering a positive environment that reduces the negativity and uncertainty around us.

With time and understanding, we can all be better equipped to face these changes and may even experience a revolution in digital education for an even better future.