The Zoom Conundrum: The Struggles of Online Learning during COVID-19

I can speak for the recent generation of students when I say that my favorite days of high school were when my teacher brought a set of Google Chromebooks or iPads for “independent work time.” The use of technology in the classroom has seen a significant rise since the start of the 2010’s, and new technologies have been introduced to keep students constantly engaged. Although I have spent many of these class periods on coolmathgames.com and hiding games of 2048 in separate tabs, meshing technology and learning has helped students in their ability to understand course material and effectively engage in the classroom in interesting ways. 

As a part of the senior class who were robbed of their anticipated senior years of high school, I understand the difficulties that came with online learning as a result of the pandemic. For all students of the COVID-19 pandemic, myself included, the combination of the uncertainty for the future and the frustration of missing out on important milestones left everyone with extremely negative memories associated with online learning. Students also had an extremely hard time participating in live virtual learning sessions and completing assignments on time due to the stress of the circumstances. In fact, nearly three-fourths of college students reported that they did not feel as if they hit their academic requirements for the year (Elsalem et al., 2021). To better understand the effect that online learning had on students and the growing hatred of online learning practices, I conducted research with the goal of answering a core question: Why did online learning suck so much during the pandemic?

“Coronavirus also definitely affected my first-of-year college because I had some other plans which were to attend another college and move out but due to it I preferred to stay here due to all the circumstances.”

-Student of University of Texas, Blankenship 2020

To start off, it is important to recognize the students who have less fortunate home lives which affects their ability to learn away from the classroom. Many factors impact students’ abilities to be successful when learning from home, such as their access to technology itself and the internet, their responsibilities in the home, or unsafe conditions and abuse.

The key ingredient in maintaining good grades through online learning is access to the needed technology and a clear understanding of how those resources work. When a student is not provided the proper tools for learning, will they be able to succeed? Unfortunately, due to poorly funded school districts and lacking technological growth in many countries, the answer is that they simply will not be able to participate in online learning to the same extent as other students.

The South Asian country of Bhutan is an example of the technical difficulties that arise in many parts of the world. In the largely rural Bhutan, nearly all of the students do not have access to the proper internet needed to participate in Zoom classes or complete online homework. Also, being from a rural area, the majority of students in Bhutan were required to pick up more responsibilities with their extra freetime in order to help support their families during challenging times (Pokhrel and Chhetri, 2021). This region demonstrates the ugly truth that too many students are limited in their success by their circumstance rather than their capabilities.

Lockdown restrictions pushed many families to their limits, as every family member was forced to stay under the same roof at all times. This situation naturally caused household tension to rise, and unfortunately turned many households into dangerous environments. Domestic violence was reported to have had a large increase over the quarantine period (Ravichandran & Shah, 2021), likely due to links between domestic violence and more hours spent together in close contact (Caron et al., 2020). This unfortunate truth explains why many students suffering these conditions are not able to give their full focus in online school. Overall, there are many factors that hinder students’ academic success that are not always obvious to everyone else. It is important to recognize and understand these unseen factors in order to better accommodate students in the future.

Every student knows the soul crushing feeling of working on an assignment they have absolutely no desire to work on. Students’ motivation for a task is one of the biggest contributors to completion and quality of students’ work. It is true that when students have more motivation for a task, the stress caused by the task is reduced and confidence in their work is largely increased (Albelbisi & Yasop, 2019). With students being heavily distracted during this past school year by feelings of impending doom and five-minute Tik Tok recipes, it is understandable why student motivation was at an all time low. This in turn creates a scenario where students have less confidence in their work as well as a restricted ability to get work done, leading to poorer performance and increased stress.

Another topic intertwined with student motivation to hinder performance is procrastination. Before people roll their eyes at me and groan as they tell me I sound like their parents, it is important to recognize that procrastination is a more complex idea than a lackluster reason to call students lazy. There are a multitude of factors that affect a students likelihood to procrastinate, leaving some students predisposed to more frequent feelings of procrastination (Saddler & Buley, 1999). The combination of low motivation for schoolwork and elevated stress levels of the past year aligns with the ideal conditions for procrastination to thrive (Jia et al., 2020; Strielkowski, 2020).

Studies over the past decades have shown a strong relationship between procrastination and negative mental health effects such as depression, anxiety, mental fatigue, and low self-esteem (Beutel et al., 2016, Solomon & Rothblum, 1984). This relationship causes a damaging cycle of low performance, low self-confidence, and further degrees of procrastination. This connection is the cause of many students’ inability to perform well, and explains why the majority of students felt as if they have not met their academic requirements over the past year (Elsalem et al., 2021).

To put simply, it is easy to see why online learning was so much more difficult. The COVID-19 created a perfect storm of stress and uncertainty which took away everyone’s ability to perform to their full potential. A lot of students, myself included, feel that their experience from this time goes largely unacknowledged and that their concerns were not taken seriously. Is this actually true? Unsurprisingly, in most cases this assumption holds true. Despite 73% of students holding the belief that their online learning experience was unfavorable to traditional schooling (Elsalem et al., 2021), other surveys show that the parents of students, ranging from Pre-K to Post High school, believed that their childs’ experience in online school during COVID-19 was a positive experience (Kingsbury, 2020).

“It’s exhausting having to be in a computer from 8 am to 5 pm then come home and do assignments and read while on the computer. Sometimes its mentally challenging because my eyes are tired, my back hurts, and we don’t have the freedom to go and socialize with our friends.”

-Student of University of Texas, Blankenship 2020

So what has this year taught us? The worsening mental health of students is most certainly concerning. Most educators would agree that students should not have to deal with lower performance because of unpredictable world events. Students across the world have turned against online learning. How can you restructure online learning to be a positive experience again?

This question is hard to answer, but there’s a few obvious places to start. An important change to make is to prioritize inclusivity for all students, and offering support to students in unideal situations. Making sure every student has the ability to learn should be a top priority. Also, it is important to offer support for students who are struggling to learn remotely. It is clear that many negative feelings, like procrastination and self-doubt, skyrocket when students transition to online learning. Professors conducting classes online should strive for flexibility and compassion in order to help students succeed.

This past year has forced everyone to adjust their life. Despite being a challenging year, there are positives that have arisen from this situation. Personally, online learning helped me discover what areas of study I was passionate about. It also, in a weird way, brought me closer to my friends and peers (some pictured on the right, as we are actively ignoring our pre-recorded lectures), as we all charted this unknown territory together. It is necessary to recognize the things we have learned about ourselves and the schooling system over this past year. By doing so, we can improve the online learning environment and help educators better support us for the next time we join a Zoom meeting.

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