AQF Views & Voices: Policy & Practice


5 Key Challenges of Remote Learning

Sarah Han

For students, teachers, professors, administrators, and parents, social distancing has brought on an unexpected set of challenges, as schools across the UAE have suddenly moved from the classroom space to the online space. In light of this, this blogpost explores 5 key challenges of remote learning and some possible ways to address them:

1. High screen time and new study habits: Research shows that the human brain interacts with screens differently than with pen and paper. A study by Stoop et al. (2013) showed that printed material is significantly superior than screens for digesting complex information. Another study showed greater self-confidence, quicker completion of tasks, and higher accuracy using physical rather than digital learning environments (Alfred et al., 2018).

Fostering new learning habits that are sensitive to online learning is essential. This can involve scheduling school hours in 25-minute increments of focused study with 5-minute technology breaks, creating a stimulating and organized study space, and printing materials and engaging in offline activities whenever possible. This should be complemented by brief, frequent visual breaks from screens to reduce eyestrain. Established models of distance learning offer unique insight into offline engagement, including the Alice Springs School of the Air in Australia, Cyber School in South Africa, and K12 online public and private schools based in the USA.

2. Loss of learning resources: Students have lost access to libraries, archives, and reference materials stored at their schools, as well as art materials, gym equipment, musical instruments, and specialized software. With the closing of school campuses, students of determination are particularly impacted as they are taken out of their support structures, and restricted to their homes without the trained assistance of a teacher’s aide.

Free digital access to learning resources is accessible through a number of institutions online, including Oxford’s eBook library and the New York Public Library. These organizations are offering free one-on-one tutoring, learning aids, teacher resources, and online story time. A list of sites including academic publishers offering free access during COVID-19 can be found compiled by Cambridge University and University of Wisconsin. Resources for kid-friendly exercise include GoNoodle games, YouTubers including P.E. with Joe, or have an impromptu family dance party!

3. Making space for learning: In remote learning, every student’s home becomes their classroom. As parents also shift to working remotely, every student and working family member must find a way to share both living and work spaces. The school environment is designed to create a safe, orderly, and distinctly academic context for learning, creating positive associations with the routine that comes from attending school, such as wearing a uniform (Wang & Degol, 2016).

Parents and students need to try to create a learning environment at home with similar order and associations as school. For families in tight living quarters, prioritizing an area for school-related activities and organizing desk space for schoolwork may take additional creativity. However even if a child shares a bedroom, there are still some creative approaches to organizing the room to create an orderly space and establish boundaries between work and play. The setting of routines and dress codes can also play a significant role in helping children treat school time differently to play time (Bodine 2003).

4. Digital mediation of classroom dynamics: Shifting the classroom online can limit the development of essential social skills and present challenges to student engagement. Students who struggle to engage in the classroom are now receiving less individual time with their teachers. As a result, some students may have difficulty keeping up academically and have limited opportunities to get support as they work, while quieter students may find it hard to join the conversation.

To foster these social dynamics, teachers can develop lesson plans to creatively engage different kinds of learners through incorporating new digital platforms such as Padlet and Nearpod to mediate interpersonal dynamics and to encourage students who are less talkative to speak up. Digitally-mediated group activities like scheduled breakout sessions, teacher-led focus groups, and study groups can also maximize engagement and encourage collaboration. These group settings are also important for maintaining children’s mental health and fighting feelings of loneliness, as social distancing has highlighted how important relationships with peers are for people’s wellbeing. Parenting resources related to autism, mental health, and dealing with grief/trauma during COVID-19 are available from the National Alliance of Mental Illness and the Child Mind Institute.

5. Need for greater parental involvement: Parental involvement is crucial in responding to the challenges of remote learning. One limiting factor in involvement is that parents may not feel confident in their abilities to support their children, especially if school was challenging for them. Furthermore, many working parents are also dealing with the stress of adjusting to working remotely.

Parental involvement can be strengthened by collaborating with teachers to develop a schedule that accommodates working parents and fosters independent learning. For example, parents can print copies of each class schedule and curriculum to encourage student motivation and focus on helping students plan their days and keep a routine. Employers can support parental involvement by offering flexible scheduling so parents can devote part of their work day to their children’s education. UNICEF and Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development have released publications of guidelines for employers for good workplace practices during COVID-19.

In our Education in Uncertain Times blog series, the Al Qasimi Foundation explores how COVID-19 is impacting students, teachers, administrators and education in the UAE. It presents insights into the current state of education, but also into policy and funding. Moreover, it offers suggestions for decision-makers and the general public on how to sustain quality education for all students in these uncertain times. If you enjoyed this blog, we encourage you to read the other blogs in our Education in Uncertain Times series.