Why Remote Learning is Failing Our Kids

Over the last 4 weeks, I’ve been teaching a group of 8-year-olds online. I’m a good teacher, but they haven’t learned much.

Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels.com

“Ok everybody, please switch on your cameras, we’re about to start” was the battle cry at the beginning of every lesson this month as I did my best to make myself sound enthusiastic and cheerful, knowing another 5 hours of online hell lay in front of me.

I’ve been teaching Korean kids on an online Summer camp for the last four weeks and it hasn’t gone well. Sure there was the odd child who followed along, laughing at my crappy jokes and producing some half-decent work. And then there were the rest. We were using a well known online conferencing tool and I was doing my best to teach them English in a communicative style, using activities, videos and online games. It should have been fun, but the blank stares and moans of frustration from the children told me otherwise.

The truth is (and it’s hard for me to admit) that the vast majority of the kids in the class struggled far more than they would have in a regular classroom setting. This is worrying because online learning has become the norm and it doesn’t look likely to go away any time soon. A national poll in America found that 40% of families said they are more likely to homeschool after the lockdown ends and I’m sure statistics are similar for other countries. This makes it all the more important to get to the bottom of why in my view, remote learning is not working at the moment. I have some theories that I’ll set out below.

  1. Kids Don’t Know How to Learn Online

At the beginning of the pandemic, kids were not taught how to function in online classes. Often, they were told things by their schools like “from next week, classes will be online. Please make sure you have access to a computer. The lesson material will be emailed to you before next week. Thank you”. No one told them how to learn in an online setting. They weren’t taught to use the technology properly and they weren’t told how to interact with each other and with the teacher. For the most part, they had to learn intricate, adult skills on the fly, which is next to impossible for an 8-year-old. CodeWizards, a well-known kids coding site with a lot of experience teaching kids over the net emphasises that “giving your child a how-to before they start their online class or activity can give them the confidence to focus on the subject at hand”. Sound advice.

2. Kids Need Help From Family Members

There is no one to help them in person. Most of these kids have dual working parents and even if grandma or grandpa is on hand to look after them, they’ve got absolutely no idea how to open a Zoom breakout room or edit a Google doc. The lack of first hand, physical assistance just makes some kids give up way too easily. CodeWizards recommend “sitting with your child for the first 15–20 minutes of a new online class or activity” so that you know they’re dialled in to the lesson and participating well.

3. The Current Education System is Not Built For Online Classes

The Korean educational style (this can probably be said for a lot of countries) does not work well on Zoom. Korean schools are all about learning by rote. Teacher is God and stands at the front of the class, ‘pontificating’ or simply regurgitating facts, while students fill in workbooks with facts to cram into their heads for all-important exams. The only way online lessons can be successful in any sense is through interaction. Teachers must interact with the students. Ask them questions, have them discuss in groups in breakout rooms, carry out whole class speaking activities. Seasoned teacher Vickie Hollet suggests “making your students your resource by asking them to pick a topic and lead a discussion…you want to enthuse and inspire, but let them take control.” Simply sitting there lecturing is not enough. To make matters worse, in some cases children even are allowed to switch off their cameras and microphones! Where are they? Are they even listening? Almost certainly not.

4. Students Lack Sensory Stimulation

Limited sensory stimulation. Good learning involves using all the senses. That includes touch and smell, the use of which are sorely limited in an online setting. Robert Wortman explains that “children make sense of their world by hearing, touching, seeing, tasting and smelling” and that by missing out on engaging these senses, learning is negatively impacted. Staring into a computer screen all day limits the depths of perception and does not allow physical interaction with teachers, classmates and teaching assistants. Often, the students are glassy-eyed and unresponsive after hours of staring at pixels.

5. Students In Need of Remediation Get Left Behind

Sure, the brightest ones are fine with online classes. But then the brightest kids can usually cope with anything and thrive. It’s the rest who get left in the dust. In an online Zoom room, it’s exceedingly hard for a teacher to get a sense of who’s on board with a new concept or piece of language and who, frankly, hasn’t got a clue. And because students are either too shy or not trained to flag themselves when they need help, the class rumbles on without them, leaving them more and more demoralised.

I’m sure there are more I could’ve come up with. This is just my initial analysis of what went wrong this month. I’m a firm believer in vaccinations and lockdowns to stop the spread of Covid in our communities. However, I’ve seen enough this month to convince me that more long-term damage is being caused by remote learning than is currently being inflicted by the virus on children and young people. It’s time to get kids back in classrooms once again, any which way we can.


Published by nickteacher

Nick Simpson is a UK-born English professor living and working in South Korea. He writes about life in Korea, cross-cultural differences and family life.

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