What online schooling is really like

Attention issues, burnout and communication problems

Delaney Halloran | Photo courtesy
Here is a picture of my desk my office my bed.

Online schooling is the price students and professors alike must pay to attend class in a safe environment in the world as it stands, and I’m willing to pay it. However, as a student, all the rationalizing and understanding in the world doesn’t change the fact that sometimes doing all your classes from home is really difficult.

It is possible to at the same time appreciate the ability to still participate in school in any format and really struggle with the only option you’re left with. For many students, online schooling is a battle between paying attention, avoiding burnout, staying organized and finding new ways to communicate with fellow students and professors. 

Unlike this past spring, when many professors were struggling along with students and were seriously lessening the expectations of their classroom, students are now expected to maintain a similar level of excellence as they would in a pre-pandemic semester. 

I’ve heard people asking why, when professors are having to put in an enormous amount of work to make their classrooms accessible to all students, shouldn’t students have to put in a similar level of work? And while I get this sentiment, there are several reasons why online schooling is still going to be incredibly hard for the most studious individuals. 

For one thing, the experience of watching a lecture on your computer is wholly different from being in the classroom. Having your professor in the same room as you to answer questions completely transforms your learning experience. 

Even if students genuinely want to pay attention, it’s incredibly hard to do so. For students who are full-time online learners, they’re using their laptops for their classes, for their homework, for their quizzes, for their papers and, if they’re like me, they’re also using their computer for work. If you spend all day in front of the same device you’re lucky if your eyes don’t fall out of your skull, let alone if you have a good attention span. 

Whether online or in-person, student or professor, you’re going to feel like you’re missing out on something.

If you can get past working from the same computer all day, you still have to deal with constant distractions. Some lectures aren’t all too fascinating in the first place and now many of them are just a lecture slide screen with an audio background. It is the modern-day version of the Viewmaster toy we had as a kid but somehow with even fewer frills. 

Having to make the choice to give your full attention to your lecture when your roommates or siblings are all at home learning, you have other things to do, or more likely, you just need a break, is a constant struggle. 

Many students have to make the choice to leave their homes or apartments to go study elsewhere, which ultimately defeats the purpose of doing school remotely. Students who live with those at risk, are at risk themselves or simply want to learn from home for the safety of others is left with the impossible decision between doing well in their classes by studying in a new environment or doing what is most safe. 

There is also far less accountability. Even with in-person classes, I have to force myself to sit in the front row to pay attention. Now I’m at home, with my mic muted and my camera off and I’m expected to be equally engaged? Fat chance.

And it’s also important for professors to respect the needs of students to not be on video, in case a student doesn’t feel comfortable showing their home or study situation. I know a fellow student who has to do all of their classes from their car. So you can’t expect students to be on video but there is also no other way to assure students are present.

More than just distraction, students are likely to feel really burnt out if they try to keep up with online schooling demands. Every assignment requires a lot of extra time when a two-second question in-class turns into a 30-minute internet search outside of class. 

Many professors have tried to ease the burden felt by students by using the flipped classroom model; which means students do all their readings and assignments outside of class and bring their questions to class for discussion. While this would work well if online formats were conversation-friendly, they’re really not. When students are exhausted from every class, you really don’t want to be the person who asks a question that keeps everyone from getting out 10 minutes early. 

For every extra step an online assignment takes, there seems to be less and less motivation on the part of the learner. It’s difficult to complete an assignment when you don’t know the professor and the deadline is just a little checkbox in an online syllabus. The pressure of showing up to class without your paper is gone. Assignments feel less genuine when they’re completely online and so motivation seems less warranted.

At this point, we know that paying attention is difficult and burnout is inevitable, but at least students can still easily reach their professors and other students right? Not quite. 

The accountability touched on before leads right into communication issues. The best classes are often those that don’t totally rely on the lecture but instead incorporate discussion and collaboration between students. However, it isn’t uncommon for students to enter their class with their professors unable to see or hear them and then completely disappear. 

For example, in a class last week I was put into a group through Blackboard Collaborate with three other students, all of whom were muted and had their videos off the entire time. There was group work to be done and not one of them was paying attention to the lecture.

They didn’t realize they were meant to be doing something. This was unfortunate for me working alone but more unfortunate for them because they missed out on a lecture they’re paying for.

So students studying from home are often left out of the loop with other online students and those students in the classroom, but is that still the case when trying to talk with professors?

During class, it can feel incredibly intimidating to ask a question through the chat or interrupt the professor when they haven’t noticed you’ve used the ‘raise hand’ function. Plus, since you usually cannot hear other students in the classroom, you fear asking a question that has already been answered.

So many online students are left with email as their only reliable tool for reaching professors. This seems incredibly unfair to the professors though. Most of my past course instructors would talk about the unbelievable amount of emails they had to deal with before online schooling. Now, they have to wade through what could be hundreds of student emails, university updates, college updates and messages from their bosses all while still teaching the same courses they would have without all this extra correspondence. 

To be clear: I don’t think any of the difficulties with online schooling are the responsibilities of professors. Many of them have had to completely readapt their courses. Every class I’m in, it seems like professors are juggling a menagerie of communication formats, technological difficulties and their lesson plans.

In addition to this, they’ve had to put their trust into the hands of students. When students are taking exams from home, professors have no way of ensuring they’re doing so while still actually learning the material. Plus, they have to trust that when online students have questions, they’ll ask them. If I had a dollar for every time a professor saw me looking confused and forced me to ask my question during class, I’d probably have at least 12 dollars (which now doesn’t sound like much but you get the point). 

Overall, this is a really hard transition for everyone. Whether online or in-person, student or professor, you’re going to feel like you’re missing out on something. I don’t think there is any good solution to this. Not as long as half the students are online and half are in person or as long as professors are expected to maintain a pre-pandemic workload.

In the short term, just have patience for everyone. Be patient with yourself as you figure this out. Give your fellow students the benefit of the doubt. Understand that your professor has taken on a whole new slew of responsibility (as have your students professors). 

Most importantly, don’t expect yourself to be ultra-successful this semester. This whole situation is uncharted territory, not just for you but for the most organized and productive people you know, even they’re struggling. There is no one to look to, no past guidebook on COVID-academics, allow yourself and others a few slip-ups and then a few more after that.

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