Distance learning as viewed by students — in the pandemic era and now
Three years have passed since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic, and over these three years, distance learning technologies have gone beyond the extramural study mode and have become widely used in the educational process in dozens of universities and colleges throughout the whole country.
We now see various ways to study under Bachelor's and Master's degree programs online; there are even whole curricula suitable for distance learning and allowing you to receive education or undergo courses from anywhere in the city, country and the world while having full control over your daily schedule. However, it's worth saying that distance learning has not always been such a success, even though we've known it in its modern form since 2000's.
Speaking about online education, we often discuss technologies, tools, ways to sell it and get a profit, speculate on the prospects of its development — basically, we talk about it merely as a product, and merely from the perspective a producer or a distributor. What about the end user — the student?
We all remember how the transition from offline to online began. Through pain, sweat and tears. Back in 2020, who did not snicker at a dog's barking coming from a fellow student's mic, or connect to online classes in pajamas only having woken up a second ago, or have a panic attack because their webcam broke down right before the exam?
Jokes aside, the first months of learning in the online mode had brought us more trouble than benefit. This became crystal clear at the very first exam period after that short online semester. Though now we're not even talking about the decrease in academic performance (read as: an increase in the number of exam retakes). During the online learning period, the problems students faced turned out to be somewhat different than in the "normal" mode.
We're going to speculate on problems and needs apart from perceiving education as a product, thus, we're not seeing the situation with the eyes of a marketer or a sales manager this time — we're talking about the firsthand student experience.
Disclaimer: the next few paragraphs do not represent the interests of producers and distributors of education and are a product of collective student reflection put into a uniform shape.
In order to collect data, I posted an anonymous poll on the Internet.
It was promoted via word of mouth in a cyber format — students forwarded messages to other students. The total of about 100 students took part in the survey. They were divided into two groups: those who studied online during covid and those who study online now. Despite the small survey selection, the tendencies reflected in the responses are visible to the naked eye.
A common problem students faced on distance learning turned out to be connection interruptions during classes. About 85% of "covid-raised" students and 60% of those who study online today mentioned connection problems, lags of all kinds, including audio lags, as well as complete disconnection during online classes. Some survey participants linked the problem not only with the bad Internet connection at their homes, but also with the fact that professors had to maneuver between online and offline classes during the working day and teach online classes using the university devices that had almost gasped out their life by that time.
About 60% respondents from the first group noticed that some professors did not want to learn how to use modern technologies and teach classes in unusual circumstances. As some respondents note, back in the beginning of the lockdown, some of the subjects were simply omitted from the everyday class schedule because of that, and during the whole lockdown period this issue had a negative impact on the quality of education given and received. However, the situation has got better over time: only a third of today's students who took part in the poll drew attention to this problem.
Although concentration, motivation and knowledge quality are purely subjective things and therefore it's difficult to bring them to a "common denominator" in statistics, we can see a certain trend there as well: almost two thirds of respondents noticed that their concentration had dumped down during the online learning period. As for motivation and the quality of knowledge, it's not so bad: about half of all the respondents did not notice any changes compared to offline learning.
Among those who studied online during the lockdown, 35% noted a situation in which they were unable to take exams online due to technical issues. Problems with the webcam, for example, in some cases were a weighty argument for barring a student from passing an online exam. Some students faced problems with Internet connection and were forced to take exams in a rather peculiar way — via phone. However, those who study online now did not face this issue.
So, we are done with problems. What about the needs?
The answer can be easily found in these very data.
First of all, students would like to study with a stable Internet connection on both sides. Not everyone was and is ready to reconnect to online classes countless times and miss important paragraphs in lecture notes because of sound issues. Although students can fix Internet connection on their own, universities have to come up with a complex approach. Well, to begin with, we can do without having all ninety students of a batch turn their webcams on during a lecture. We also can make such class schedules that would prevent professors from switching between online and offline classes during one working day.
Besides, students clearly express the need to see professors skillfully use distance learning technologies: video conference platforms, systems of distance learning, search and apply new solutions. That makes perfect sense because teaching classes, especially practical classes, in the old-fashioned way, monotonously reading the lecture text and calling students to an imaginary blackboard with an imaginary chalk in their hand, brings obviously less benefit than using modern special tools. A decrease in the quality of knowledge due to an inappropriate solution to a situation, even a slight one, is still a decrease in the quality of knowledge. And students worry about it as much as professors do!
As for motivation and concentration, here, on the one hand, we see the problem of student's self-organization, and on the other hand, there is — again — the problem of organizing the educational process. We already know how to attract a live audience and keep their attention, standing at a tribune or a blackboard, but now it's time to keep the attention of your cyber audience that you can only see on the computer screen.
The difficult times of forced distance learning in all respects have obviously proved fruitful for online education. At the beginning of the online era, teaching online classes and convey information efficiently in front of the camera and with the aid of the screen demonstration was difficult for professors, and digesting the information in this mode was difficult for students, but now most of the time it's not such a big deal it was before for educators and learners. But now we have to start analyzing online (and offline, too) education and its prospects not only from the "how to sell it" perspective, but also from the "how do I learn here" perspective — the perspective of a student, the end user of educational programs and services and a future specialist trained under such a program. Times are changing, life is getting faster, and we need to take into account the rhythm of life and the need of modern youth to have everything at once when building the online learning process. With due effort, online education can become even more effective than offline education.
        Margarita Lazarenko
        Margarita Lazarenko is a specialist of the Department for external communications of the Open higher school for Humanities of the RUSS University. Editor-proofreader of the Education Export Magazine. In 2022, earned bachelor's degree in Linguistics at Dostoevsky Omsk State University. Translator of publicistic texts into English and Spanish languages.