Student Accounts of Distance Learning

Distance learning is not very popular. “It is complete a–,” writes one student. “No. No. No,” adds another on the prospects of online learning after the pandemic. Of 63 respondents to a survey about distance learning, just 5 students wrote that their academic performance had improved, compared to 33 who reported that they were worse off in school. The reasons for such struggles vary—most cited lack of motivation and social interaction as the cause—but the pattern is clear: distance learning seems to be hurting students far more often than it helps—but some people do benefit.

Sean Brochin teaches Special Education at Franklin. Most of his students are on the autism spectrum, a diagnosis associated with struggles to understand non-verbal communication and challenges with  social skills. When his students attend school in-person, understanding social norms and social interactions “can be tricky,” he says, and “the sensory experience of high school, of being in a school with 2,000 other students, rushing around the hallway, is very intense for people on the [autism] spectrum, for students and adults alike.” Many students with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) face bullying as well. While not all students on the spectrum experience these setbacks, they are fairly common.

These issues do not show up in online school. Students are each in their own homes, and many go entire classes without talking. The social requirements are often limited to typing in the chat. As a result, students with ASD are significantly more likely to prefer online learning than the rest of the student body, according to Brochin, who estimates that roughly half his class would rather stay online than return to in-person instruction, if and when the opportunity arises. 2 of 6 respondents from his class said they’d noticed improvements overall to their educational experience, but two have seen their performance and mental state suffer.

For most of the rest of the school, based on the survey, online school has been much worse. Many respondents couldn’t find anything that had gone better for them in distance learning than in-person classes. Even among those who had improved in an academic sense, there was a lack of confidence in the system long-term: one student, Ryan Kovatch (12) wrote that he wants “to be able to chat and eat lunch with friends and know people by their faces instead of their voices.” (Kovatch is an editor on the Franklin Post.) Brochin adds that the students of his who do wish to return primarily attribute the feelings to a desire for social interaction, despite the many social stressors for those who experience ASD.

Interactions are an inextricable part of education. With classes of 20-30 students, in schools with hundreds or thousands, schools become a social hub, from which children tend to develop friendships and learn from each other. However, the online medium limits much of the interaction. With microphones muted, cameras off, and miles of physical separation between students, it becomes difficult or even impossible to replicate the rich environment brought on by in-person instruction. “We don’t get to socialize,” writes one respondent.

Students don’t just interact with one another; they also talk to their teachers. In a classroom, the teacher is only a few feet away, easily accessible at all times, and when a pupil is having trouble, they can easily seek help one-on-one with teachers. This can’t happen online. The lack of communication with teachers was a common complaint. Office Hours, time outside of class during which students can speak to teachers, can replace some of the interpersonal education, but not everybody takes advantage of the opportunity, and Brochin says the majority of his students don’t.

It’s more difficult to pay attention online, since one is at home, often with the camera off, in what feels like a more lifeless setting, and many people turn to their phones during class for entertainment or simply have too much to deal with to pay attention. “[There are] other noises around the house [from] my family members, like my brother comes and starts talking to me or I go on my phone or something,” says Franklin senior Ailee Pederson. “There’s a lot more distractions.” It’s harder for teachers to consistently involve students in conversations. This hampers productivity, since most education tends to take place in the classroom rather than through homework.

The part of the day that most closely resembles in-person schooling is Synchronous classes, during which students must enter a Google Meet or Zoom meeting. However, these only take place in the morning. For the afternoon, the part of the day in which Asynchronous classes take place, the exact definition of participation is more vague. Attendance is taken in several different ways, depending on the teacher. Some require their class to complete and turn in work daily, per Hayden Lewandowski (11). Others create a Google Form in which the class can indicate their presence, set up another meeting to mark attendance, ask a random question through the website Remind, or something entirely different. The lack of consistency in the system creates issues for students and teachers. “The attendance system literally sucks. It’s so bad. [They] totally dropped the ball on that this year and I’m so disappointed with them because it is very often that my parents will get a call that I was absent on a day that I was definitely there,” says Kovatch. “We need to have… a universally understood system for attendance like we did in physical school, like [they] call your name, and you’re here.”

It’s harder for many people to complete and turn in their homework on time, for a variety of reasons. The first is that the act of turning something in, which previously resulted in a clear physical change to the environment—putting an assignment on a pile—has become a metaphysical one, making deadlines less clear to some. “If I have to focus on something else that day, then I’ll turn it in like a couple days late,” says Pederson. “It just doesn’t matter to me.” Procrastination is a common problem, based on survey results and interviews, and Lewandowski has noticed the same difference that Pederson did.

Grades have fallen during distance learning. According to The Oregonian, 1 in 4 PPS students received an F, an incomplete, or no grade during the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year, compared to about 20% at the same point last year. Wyatt Wilson, a Franklin freshman, and Lewandowski have both struggled with grades. “[In person,]  I got decent grades, mostly B’s, [but] now… I feel like my grades are suffering a lot. I’m getting more C’s and occasionally a D,” says Wilson.

It’s still unclear exactly when schools in Portland will reopen, but it does appear that the prospect of reopening is more realistic than it was a month ago. Thanks to vaccine developments, Oregon governor Kate Brown changed state guidelines on December 23. According to an email sent by PPS, opportunities for students such as athletics may be available in the short term, and there will be summer programs to make up for lost education during the year. The Department of Education expects to release new guidelines by January 19 regarding school safety, and a decision will be made for the third quarter by the end of the semester on January 28. Educators will be prioritized as essential workers in Oregon’s vaccine rollout, according to OPB, and while Oregon has been slower than most other states in delivering vaccines to the population, Brown hoped to reach 12,000 vaccinations a day by Jan. 17, per The Oregonian, and most teachers may be immunized by the end of the school year, maybe earlier. Brown also hopes to get students back in schools by Feb. 15, but the idea has been criticized, and many teachers and most students likely will not have been vaccinated by then.

However, there are students who might not need to go back, and who may be better off staying online. There is no mention of online schooling after the vaccine in PPS’s statement, but there are some who would benefit from it, including (possibly) many of Brochin’s students. “I’m more than happy to be here as a special education teacher for some sort of hybrid model,” he says. “[It’s] very unlikely that will happen, [maybe a] 0.01% chance that will happen, but I will gladly facilitate online classes for [some] students.”

People interviewed had a hard time coming up with improvements to distance learning, but there were some ideas. Wilson and Lewandowski both suggested doing more work in class rather than using Asynchronous periods for work, since students would be more focused. Brochin would like to see teachers work to give as many passing grades as possible due to the unique and unpredictable environment. Pederson wishes the teachers were given classes themselves on how to use the new technology, and that rules were put in place so students would have to use cameras. It’s unknown when in-person classes will return, and constantly rising COVID-19 rates make decision-making much more complicated, but it appears that the majority of students need it, for their education’s sake.

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