Loneliness of the Long Distance Learner

David Trend

No one could have predicted the radical changes in education of the early 2020s. Besides making the once-obscure Zoom into a household name, the pandemic accelerated an already fast-moving takeover of everyday life by the internet. The economic consequences were profound, with revenues exploding for companies like Netflix and Amazon while brick-and-mortal retail outlets and restaurants disappeared by the thousands. Of course nothing about the upheaval was especially surprising in historical terms. Cataclysmic events like disasters and wars often leave places quite different than they were before, as systemic restraints give way to radical reorganization. Emergency measures accepted in the moment have a habit of leaving remnants in place, much as occurred with online learning. Not that this is always is a bad thing. Urgent situations can trigger remarkable innovation and creativity, seen in the hundreds of ways that educators found ways to keep instruction going. But just as often people get hurt in the rush, as short-term solutions make for long-term problems.

Seen in retrospect, the rapid transition to online learning certainly falls into this latter category, evidenced in the huge numbers of students who failed or dropped out of classes, with those affected overwhelmingly the historically underserved. Changes occurred and learning was disrupted. But the convenience and efficiencies of virtual classroom were too good to let go. “Online Learning is Here to Stay” read a feature in New York Times, citing a study from the Rand Corporation saying that 20 percent of schools were choosing to continue portions of their online offerings. “Families have come to prefer stand-alone virtual schools and districts are rushing to accommodate, but questions still linger.”[i] Questions indeed. Before the pandemic less than one percent of K-12 schooling took place online. Educational reasons notwithstanding, this also had to do with the function of school as childcare for working families. The idea of a twenty-fold increase in home learning raises the question of what parent demographics are driving this shift. Or more to the point, who has gained from the online shift and who lost out?

No less a source than the U.S. Department of Education issued a report entitled “The Disparate Impact of COVID-19 on America’s Students” documenting deepening inequities resulting from online learning.[ii]  While the shift to distance learning seemed to affect everyone in much the same way, already vulnerable students and schools had less margin for adaptation. Those affected included students without home internet or with poor connections, those in crowded households or with work obligations.  Students with underlying health conditions or disabilities found themselves without the support schools might have offered. In large numbers, students with learning differences had difficulty completing coursework (76 percent) or feeling connected to school (57 percent). But most startling from Department of Education report were data showing online school attendance of black and Latinx students 22 percent below white students.[iii] Overall decisions to attend college dropped by seven percent, with those from under-resourced high schools declining by nearly double the rate.[iv]

To its credit, the Department of Education Report went beyond simply cataloguing the above problems.  Characterizing what happened as nothing less than a civil rights issue, the document said,

Although this Report provides a data-driven account of COVID-19’s disparate impacts on students, rather than a legal analysis, it is important to recognize that disparities can sometimes be evidence of legal injuries under Federal civil rights laws, even when policies and practices do not directly single out a group of people for harm. These laws include Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin, including in educational programs and activities that receive Federal financial assistance.[v]

The federal report and others like it indicate that success or failure in the online classroom is more than a matter of effort, ability, or technological fluency. Students certainly knew this, especially at the college level where 44 percent blamed a lower quality of the education delivered to them.[vi] The hardly should surprise anyone, given the lack of preparedness of faculty and administrators. Indeed a study compile by Barnes & Noble College (BCC) reported an astonishing 94 percent of students believe school should charge less money for online offerings.[vii]

With such high stakes, educators and researchers began looking for ways do better. But understanding why and how these disparities occurred has turned out to be a complicated matter. Owing to intersecting social, technological, and institutional factors, general conclusions or solutions are hard to come by. What works for one student may not work for another, regardless of socioeconomic status or background. Also, the extraordinary societal upheaval of the COVID period made valid assessments of online instruction impossible. Fortunately, that was not the end of the story since robust research on distance learning had been ongoing on a smaller scale for decades, especially in the community college arena.

A omnibus overview of this research entitled “The Promises and Limits of Online Higher Education”   documented differential outcomes in distance learning,  along with analysis of why and in what contexts online education succeeds or fails.[viii] In a nutshell, the problems that arose in the early 2020s were nothing new. But they might have been prevented were it not for the COVID rush. According to report authors Di Xu and Ying Xu, success in distance learning is contingent on multiple factors, among them internet access, technical proficiency, self-direction, prior academic preparation, and maturity.  Students who succeeded tended to be those with well-developed study skills, clear goals, and more experience with college-level courses. Less successful students were more likely new to college, younger, less organized academically, and part-time students. Put another way, students already doing well seemed to adapt easily to the virtual classrooms. For those with existing challenges distance learning made matters worse.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, the Online Learning Research Center (OLRC) at UC Irvine has developed a series of recommendations for advancing equity in distance education.[ix] These begin  with clear and simple course materials, accessible to all students and carefully explained. Without such basic information, students can get lost or confused in what is sometimes an unfamiliar learning environment. Next comes frequent faculty communication and presence to promote student engagement and guard against isolation. Related to this are measures to help students connect with each other. Group projects, peer activities, or discussion boards can recreate the type social environment of an in-person classroom, sometimes in a more egalitarian way. Beyond this, faculty can take steps to support students in organizing their learning. Assignment reminders, project examples, and clear rubrics can help all students succeed rather than a few. Finally, an open discussion of learning objectives, study skills, and assessment can encourage student autonomy by treating them as partners in the learning process.

Owing to projects like the OLRC, the academic literature on online learning is now growing in the humanities, social sciences, and education itself. Much of this analysis looks at the inequities in online learning as deriving to a significant degree from teaching practices that objectify and stratify students, some more than others. So called “teacher-centered” education follows a nineteenth century industrial model in which standardized items of knowledge are transmitted to students for memorization, use, and later assessment. Following Frederick Taylor’s principles of scientific measurement, practices were introduced into nearly all U.S. schools based on top-down instruction “treating each student as an average student and aiming to provide each one with the same standardized education, regardless of their background, abilities, or background.”[x] By the early twentieth century proponents of “student-centered” education such as John Dewey, pointed to the anti-democratic effects of the industrial model in discouraging student voice and independent thought.[xi]  Dewey and others in the movement argued that students learn better when they are more involved in the educational process, especially when they can contribute to educational exchanges. Equity advocates also argue that student-centered learning promotes inclusion by encouraging and validating diverse approaches to knowledge.

Inclusive student-centered approaches to learning are all the more important in the realm of distance learning, where mechanization easily can lead to assembly-line courseware. The very production of online courses requires pre-fabrication, with asynchronous instruction in particular often prepared well before instructor and student meet. Add to this standardized LMS formatting of courses in ways that anticipate normative ways of delivering content, interacting with students, assessing, tracking, and monitoring. And this is before third-party apps and AV software come between student and teacher. Michel Foucault would have a much to say about the ways that power inheres in the architecture of the electronic classroom, not to mention its surveillance capacities for generating statistical analysis of individuals, grading cohorts, departments, and entire campuses. Foucault is famous for explaining how authority is exercised in places people don’t always expect, such as education, work, law, and medicine. People learn to recognize and validate authority in ways that can be obvious or subtle, conscious or unconscious. “Power is everywhere” Foucault wrote, adding that power “‘excludes’, it represses, it censors, it abstracts, it masks, it conceals.  In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.”[xii]

In education such underlying power sometimes is called the “hidden curriculum.” Along with the visible curriculum of facts and concepts, students undergo a process of conditioning around values, social relationships and preferred behaviors. The hidden curriculum tells students how to behave and what is needed for success, previewing their future relationships in the workplace. In doing so the hidden curriculum conveys norms and values, presenting them as necessary for the functioning of society. As an element of school culture, the hidden curriculum can be whatever those in charge want it to be. But because it is not always discussed as such, hidden curricula tend to reproduce norms and values favoring dominant perspectives at the expense of others. Over the years the hidden curriculum has been critiqued for reproducing male privilege, white supremacy, heteronormativity, hyper-individualism, and competition, among other values.  For this reason the hidden curriculum often finds itself at odds with principles of equity and inclusion.

None of this is lost students –– many of whom come from backgrounds unlike their teachers. As the importance of a two or four year degree has grown, so has the diversity of the college age population, with students of color now accounting 46 percent of the undergraduate population nationwide and students identified as female making up 57 percent.[xiii]  These demographics don’t square with those of faculty, as reported by the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU) in a recent report entitled “College Students Are More Diverse Than Ever. Faculty and Administrators Are Not.”[xiv]  The report said that reported people of color make up roughly one quarter of full time faculty (26 percent) and women approximately one third (34 percent).[xv]  Research conducted for two decades has found that minority students who have educators of the same race or ethnicity are more likely to look to those teachers as role models and to report greater effort in school and higher college goals. A study looking at community college classrooms found that performance gaps of minority students can close by 20 p to 50 percent if faculty and student demographics match.[xvi]

Bias pervades college campuses just like it does society at large. Despite the increasing diversity of student populations, ingrained attitudes of racial prejudice, sexism, ableism, and homophobia persist –– with hate crimes and intolerance rising sharply in the past decade. Many students of color report racial slurs or microaggressions inside and outside of classes, which can negatively affect their academic performance. Faculty can play an important role in helping to make classrooms and campus places where all students sense they “belong” rather than feeling like outsiders. This can begin with something as simple as treating all students with trust and positive expectations. Or it can mean designing and conducting courses with inclusion in mind and the recognizing that a one-size-fits-all curriculum may not work for all students.

Online courses need such attention to inclusion and belonging more than face-to-face instruction. Here again student-centered approaches can be useful in helping learners to see themselves as partners in the educational process. This can be begin with something as simple as giving students choices about when and how to engage course components. Or it can mean flexible deadlines and assignment options to accommodate students who have jobs, transportation challenges, or care responsibilities. Rather than structuring grades around big-ticket tests or exams, the use of regular graded low value tasks or activities gives students a sense of agency and confidence in building their grades, while lessening anxieties about succeeding.

[i] Natasha Singer, “Online Learning is Here to Stay,” New York Times (Apr. 14, 2021) https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/11/technology/remote-learning-online-school.html ( accessed Jul. 18, 2021)

[ii] Education in a Pandemic: The Disparate Impacts of COVID-19 on America’s Students, U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (Washington, D.C.: 2021)

[iii] Education in a Pandemic p. 12.

[iv] Education in a Pandemic p. 32.

[v] Education in a Pandemic p. ii..

[vi] Derek Newton, The Worst of Times for Online Education,” Forbes (Mar. 31, 2021)  https://www.forbes.com/sites/dereknewton/2021/03/31/the-worst-of-times-for-online-education/?sh=21e6dcf53a5a (accessed Jul. 18, 2021).

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Di Xu and Ying Xu, The Promises and Limits of Online Higher Education: Understanding How Distance Education Affects Access, Cost, And Quality (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, Mar. 2019).

[ix] “Five Evidence Based-Ways To Improve Online Courses,” UC Irvine Online Learning Research Center (n.d.) https://www.olrc.us/improving-online-courses.html  (accessed Jul 81. 2021).

[x] Krista Kaput, Evidence for Student Centered Learning, (St. Paul, MN: Evolving Education, 2018)   p. 5

[xi] John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York: MacMillan, 1916).

[xii] Michel Foucault, M. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (1975) (London: Penguin, 1991) p.194.

[xiii] “College Students Are More Diverse Than Ever. Faculty and Administrators Are Not.” Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU)  (Mar. 2019) https://www.aacu.org/aacu-news/newsletter/2019/march/facts-figures (accessed Jul. 20, 2021).

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] “Characteristics of Postsecondary Faculty,” National Center for Educational Statistics  (May 2020) https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/csc (accessed July 20, 2021).

[xvi] Leslie Davis and Richard Fry, “College Faculty Have Become More Racially and Ethnically Diverse, But Remain Far Less So Than Students,” Pew Research Center (Jul. 31,2019) https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/07/31/us-college-faculty-student-diversity/ (accessed Jul. 20, 2021)

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