The (dis)advantages of online learning and assessment during the coronavirus pandemic

Now that online school is over (for at least three months), I think we should all take a step back and reflect a little bit upon the extremely challenging experience of teaching remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, which have changed the mindset of both teachers and learners around the world. This article is intended to be a kind of SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis of online instruction meant to help us realize what has gone well and what we are (still) lacking.

It is obvious that technology has transformed the educational system (and our lives, too), but what are the implications of this accelerated reshaping of the teaching and learning process?  In order to find the answer to this question, we are going to have a look at the advantages and disadvantages of online learning and assessment during the pandemic. And because it is always better to be optimistic and see the full half of the glass in any circumstances and especially during difficult times like these, we will start with a (far from exhaustive) list of advantages which have been discussed with students, colleagues and parents (and my own children too, 12 and 14 years old) during our feedback session at the end of the semester. There are fourteen advantages we have identified and talked about:

1. Students do not have to get up early and take public transport to get to school anymore (this is the main advantage of online instruction, according to my students and to some of my colleagues);
2. Lessons are provided via online platforms so students could easily access them from the comfort of their home; learners can choose their own learning environment;
3. It offers better opportunities to concentrate by not being around other people (although some of my students complained about being disturbed by their noisy families);
4. If you are a shy student, you do not have to worry about interacting with other students; your colleagues will see your mind first and your body second, if at all; the pressure to keep up with other students in a face-to-face environment is removed;
5. It makes learning simpler, easier and more effective and it promotes independent, autonomous learning as it allows students to choose the time for study and take responsibility; students develop self-discipline by managing their time and tasks; in other words, it allows students to personalize their learning path;
6. There is more time left for hobbies (for both teachers and students);
7. It has an enormous educational potential and it represents a great opportunity for learning as it provides students and teachers with relevant content and a vast amount of information; more than that, it can be an opportunity for upskilling as it leads to the improvement of digital and technological skills;
8. The resources are available from anywhere and at any time; if recorded, live lectures and conferences can be seen again and again;
9. It represents a great way to boost students’ motivation and to raise their self-esteem (many students seemed to be more eager and determined to actively participate than before); it is a self-motivated and self-paced type of learning;
10. Students have more possibilities to get constructive feedback from their teachers and there are also online learning platforms which have immediate scoring systems;
11. It has the potential to develop 21st century skills (communication, cooperation, critical thinking, creativity, leadership, flexibility, media literacy, decision making, social and emotional skills, open-mindedness);
12. It definitely reaches out the ‘gaming generation’ (most of my students have found online learning quite entertaining and much more fun than ‘normal’ school; for example, they loved writing their comments in the Chat Box on Zoom or using the Annotate function for drawing stars and hearts on the screen);
13. It provides enhanced communication with others; many students felt even more connected to their peers and teachers during remote learning; the use of social media and synchronous online platforms created a unique learning and sharing experience;
14. It can be a path to success and personal fulfillment (for both students and teachers) if tailored to students’ different needs by a careful choice of online tools and resources.

But what about the drawbacks of online instruction? Here is a list (again far from exhaustive) of fourteen disadvantages of remote learning, as they resulted from my discussions with students, colleagues and parents:

1. It does not offer real human interaction (this is the main disadvantage mentioned by my students and my own children who have confessed that what they have missed the most was being physically together with their colleagues and teachers);
2. Students can get too comfortable when studying from home (some of my students admitted the fact that they were lying in bed during their lessons on Zoom, with their cameras off, of course…); there is always the risk of students not paying attention to the lesson;
3. Feedback from students can be very limited or close to zero in some cases (no response from some of the students who simply refuse to unmute their microphone and actively participate, using a low Internet connection as an excuse, not to mention the fact that there are students who seem to be reconnecting all the time…);
4. It does not improve physical fitness; moreover, lots of teachers and students have put on weight lately (including me…);
5. It does not offer equal chances to education as not all students can join online lessons; students from rural areas or poor communities are disadvantaged; moreover, students with special needs (including the ones with physical disabilities) can feel excluded, neglected and left behind;
6. Students get knowledge mostly on a theoretical basis (some students complained that they couldn’t understand the whole content, referring especially to subjects which involve and require experiments, for example Physics or Biology); online instruction seems to be more suitable for social sciences;
7. Computer-marked assessment generally has a tendency of being only knowledge-based rather than practicality-based;
8. It requires strong self-motivation for both learners and teachers (many students and teachers lost their motivation at the beginning of the pandemic and they had to struggle to gain it back while they were confronting their fears caused by the rapid spread of the virus);
9. It raises the highly problematic issue of online platforms or Internet security and, unfortunatelly, cyber-bullying is still a possibility.
10. It is tiring and stressful (here we should mention the so-called ‘Zoom fatigue’ syndrome, which I have personally experienced and which has affected many of my students too); both students and teachers mentioned the fact that they felt under pressure during online lessons, most of the times because of technical issues;
11. It can be boring if not adapted to students’ diversity  and needs (personal interests, learning styles, multiple intelligences);
12. Young learners cannot focus for too long and lose interest very quickly online; teachers cannot cope with a large number of students who want to talk and, as a result, they can easily lose control of their online classrooms (it is extremely frustrating and stressful for a teacher to listen to a group of 10-year-old children talking in the same time and forgetting or refusing to unmute their microphones because they wanted their voice to be heard by the teacher or using the Annotate function from Zoom just for drawing funny shapes on your Power Point Presentation); from my own experience with teaching online to primary school students, I have realized the fact that they were the most affected by being physically separated from their teachers; some of them looked really sad or almost crying at the end of the virtual lesson, which made me understand that they it was my empathy, understanding and compassion they needed first).
13. It can result in information overload (too many (re)sources) and excessive homework (which, let us admit it, can be copied or done by someone else and cheating prevention during online assessment is quite complicated);
14. It has the potential to negatively affect physical and emotional health (blurred vision, dry eyes, headaches, neck and shoulder pain, sleep disorders or anxiety, which I have personally experienced); moreover, it can lead to behavioral problems, social isolation and even violence.

By putting the equally numbered lists of pros and cons into balance, we may conclude that online school has made a huge change in the educational system and opened the gate to amazing and previously unimagined opportunities for both teachers and students, but it definitely has some negative effects we should always be aware of. I personally believe it is our mission as teachers (no matter what subject we teach) to make sure that the advantages of online training outweighs its limitations, to the benefit of our learners and, why not, for our own professional and personal fulfillment.



prof. Iuliana-Alina Muntean

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