Three Ways to Make Distance Learning Work: Lessons from Students Around the World
Diego, a high school student from Mexico, was leaving school one day in mid-March when one of his friends pulled out her phone and saw an announcement from their school saying that classes would be suspended the very next day. Suddenly, Diego found himself spending long hours in his room every day, attending classes online. “It’s zombie-like,” he says, “Class feels so bland”. He is overwhelmed with the increased workload, and his grades have sunk.
Governments around the world have been closing schools in an attempt to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. At its peak in April, UNESCO reported 193 country-wide school closures, affecting over 90% of students. Globally, there was a rapid migration to digital learning, often with insufficient bandwidth, no training, and little preparation.
To understand students’ experiences of learning online during the pandemic, I spoke with 17 students from nine countries. These students all have access to some form of digital learning. They attend a range of schools, both private and public, at grades ranging from primary to postgraduate level. It’s important to note that the views shared by these interviewees reflect their personal experiences only and do not represent the situation of all students in their country.
Three elements stood out as important for enjoyable and effective online learning: Healthy workload, comfortable and inclusive interaction, and high levels of flexibility.
1. Healthy workload
Most of the students I spoke with said they have been overloaded with assignments. Diego says teachers have even been giving out homework originally set for later dates. Maitha, a university student in the United Arab Emirates, says she has about three times the usual amount of assignments. “I feel stressed all the time and I’m starting to resent studying,” says Carrie, a university student from Hong Kong. “You stop caring about the quality [of work].”
Other students don’t have enough work. Madita, a German high school student, says she completes her day’s work in two hours and feels she’s learning too little. Wilfred, a high school student from Nigeria, feels similarly: “I don’t really do much because the teachers they don’t really want to do much.”
Dana, a high school student from the United States, thinks her teachers have found a sweet spot. Her teachers coordinate the amount of work they give to students and design assignments so the learning goals overlap across subjects.
2. Comfortable and inclusive interactions
Most students tell me they enjoy interactions that do not push them outside their comfort zones. Some schools require students to turn their cameras on as a means to boost participation. This works well for Edythe, a primary school student from Hong Kong who says this helps her focus and she enjoys seeing everyone’s faces. But others don’t want to be on camera. They cite concerns about surveillance and cyberbullying. “We also can’t trust other students to not do a screen cap and put it on social media,” says Rahaf, a high school student in the UAE.
Another challenge is making space for student questions. Some students have trouble figuring out the right moment to raise a question or hesitate to interrupt their teacher. “When I have a question, I ask my friends, and if they don’t know, I don’t know,” says Rahaf. Edythe says her teacher allocates 15 minutes each class for questions but it’s difficult to get her question through as there are 60 students in her class.
Some students found it helpful when teachers had worked with them to set virtual classroom etiquettes and norms for participation. Teachers can also incorporate activities that allow everybody to participate, such as polls and games on Kahoot. Students also appreciated spaces where they can interact with peers outside of class. Skye, a middle school student in the United Kingdom, likes that her teacher keeps their virtual classroom running for five minutes after class so students can chat freely with one another.
3. High levels of flexibility
Students whose schools follow the usual class schedules tell me they feel exhausted after spending hours in a virtual classroom. “You’re sitting there and you think we have the opportunity to learn so much more now that we have our own space and devices to explore freely, but it feels really constrained,” says Diego, who spends 6 hours each day attending live lessons.
Students who have more autonomy are more excited to learn. Madita says she enjoys learning at her own pace because she can structure her time to tackle schoolwork when she is most focused and efficient. Dana attends live lessons where she and her classmates do their own work with a teacher present to answer questions that arise. If she is able to make good progress, her school allows her to enjoy summer break early. “That’s definitely a huge motivator,” she explains, proudly describing how she completed a two-week physics project in one day.
Self-paced learning doesn’t always work out so well; students often mentioned friends who, left to their own devices, did little work. Dana finds it helpful that she has daily, goal-setting check-ins with her teacher.
Some schools combine both live lessons and self-paced learning. Koki, a graduate student in the United States, says he greatly enjoys the flipped classroom. His professor records a video for students to watch in their own time, and class meets for a shorter time and is focused on having discussions and addressing students’ questions.
These students’ experiences suggest that at least for some subjects, self-paced and personalized online learning can be more effective than classroom instruction. Of course, this is provided that students have access to the internet and digital learning devices, and receive adequate support and guidance from teachers. Even then, the social aspects of learning are difficult to replicate online.
We must also not forget that for millions of students whose learning has been disrupted, virtual schooling is not an option. And for many of those currently attending classes online, the abrupt changes have brought frustration, exhaustion, and – in all likelihood – decreased learning.
 These countries and regions include Germany, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and United States.
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.