Online-Only Learning Poses Challenges for Both Educators and Students


Courtesy of ComputerWorld

For some professors, the online learning environment has made it harder to keep students engaged and asking questions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught universities across the country a lot about functioning under difficult situations. Often large changes and developments find themselves weighing heavily on those most involved with the learning process, educators and students.

Concerns regarding the way online classes would affect quality of education sprang up as soon as it was clear online-only learning would have to be the new default. For UM-Flint, it was no different.  

Nearly a year in, educators like English Lecturer Stephanie Villadet-Gelderloos are struggling to make sense of this online method of teaching that according to her is “crushing students and teachers alike in their attempts to work with it.”

The level of understanding the class has in her discussions and presentations is Gelderloos’ main concern. A large part of this issue is related to the computer screen, which for many has proven to be a barrier. Losing the ability to be in the same classroom with her students has made gauging student’s facial features and body language a challenge. Something professors like Gelderloos are keen to pick up on.

These visual cues allow professors to analyze their students and understand where the student is at and how the professor can help them move forward. In the online setting, those cues are lost.

“It is really difficult to recognize how students feel, especially due to the fact that in a class of 25 to 30 students the connection between me and them is lost. Somehow, even though we’re all at home, in places where we typically are very comfortable and open, people are less comfortable in class and less involved,” Gelderloos said. 

The issue of a classroom disconnect goes deeper than just a screen disconnect, it seeps into the understanding and involvement of the class during and after the lessons. According to Gelderloos, student behavior has gotten to a point where there are fewer than typically four or five questions per class, and hardly any speaking besides her own presentations. 

To combat this, Gelderloos has gone the extra mile to engage her class and get the virtual classroom to be a more useful and enjoyable experience. This includes creating polls, using interactive methods of discussion that require individuals to be involved and deliberately asking students questions by name at random.

According to Gelderloos, a small fraction of her students have adapted well to their online setting. Though she is grateful for this, she is also quick to point out students like these are not the norm and more often than not, the average student is struggling with online learning. Kay’Leigh Holmstead, a freshman going into Human Biology, said online learning has exacerbated her educational process. “As someone who has a hard time focusing, especially with my ADD, the online setting makes it even more difficult for me as a student to succeed,” she said. 

Sarah Brown, a junior going into Mechanical Engineering, said, “Online education is a part of the future that we should put a lot more effort into perfecting. There really is more to this than it appears to be. There’s a lot of room for improvement with this online learning method.”

On their end, UM-Flint along with the Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses have implemented a Pass/Fail grading system to accommodate the transition to online-only learning.

This option allowed students to opt for a “pass” or “fail” on their college transcripts as opposed to a traditional letter grade, the advantage of this being that a low but passing grade, as well as a failing grade, would not negatively affect a student’s GPA. 

Despite measures like these being put in place, students still worry. Some are left feeling like they need to teach themselves because of the disconnect caused by the virtual classroom. 

Educators like Gelderloos, who are aware of these struggles, are firm on the stance that if you ask for help, you will receive it. “I hate the idea that students are struggling and can’t move forward. The idea of a student not being able to do their work deeply concerns me” she said.

“We’re all doing the best we can right now, and I think that’s really all we can do. We’re all doing the best we can to make the best learning experience possible in these tough times,” Gelderloos said.