Around the world, almost every nation is social distancing, placing us in an unprecedented era in modern history. Even so, life must go on. Some people still must work, others do their best to fill up time in their day, and notably, students still must receive an education. Millions of students across America and across the world have been displaced, yet educational institutions are doing their best to continue to give the students the education they deserve. Luckily, technology has played an important role in this pursuit of education. In fact, many students have actually utilized a fully technology-based education from the comfort of their home, even before the COVID-19 Pandemic ravaged the globe.
Online education has proved to be a real option in the past for many students seeking an education; however, it appears that most students opt for the standard in-person education that we are so used to. Nowadays, the video chat platform Zoom has become widely used by institutions of education no matter the grade-level. Some graduates have even joked that they are graduating from Zoom University, Class of 2021. Some individuals believe that this COVID-19 crisis will change the way education systems are run forever, citing the shift of the New Orleans school district to a solely charter school district after the Hurricane Katrina disaster. With this normalization of education into an online format over an in-person one, a number of questions are raised. For one, does online education work? Are students actually learning in an online environment? This paper aims to further understand the impacts of online education systems and to investigate if online learning is a worthy alternative to the standard in-person education system.
One area of interest when discussing this topic is that of online charter schools, which heavily incorporate technological advancements and online learning into their learning environments. Many have discussed how online charter schools could be the education of the future. To investigate this, the Center For Research on Educational Outcomes did an in-depth study of educational outcomes in online charter schools in 2015. Among their several findings, one standout development was that learning in an online setting resulted in significantly less academic growth when compared to Brick District Growth. This means that students who are enrolled in online charter schools will be less likely to improve in their academic achievement than their peers receiving an in-person education. Additionally, they found that this effect was even larger among those students who are in poverty or who are not fluent in English. It is notable to mention that at a traditional in-person school, students who are in poverty or who do not fluently speak English will be less likely to achieve academic growth, but this effect is only emphasized in an online charter school environment.
In current times, this seems to be a worry, as it has been hypothesized that COVID-19 does not affect every individual equally. Those who are in poverty appear to be severely affected by the malicious effects of COVID-19, when compared to their wealthier counterparts. One extra worry is the negative effects online education could have on disadvantaged students. The findings from the Center For Research on Education Outcomes only seem to confirm these worries, as they suggest that disadvantaged students may perform worse in online schools than they would have if they were receiving an in-person education . In this way, online education seems to be a form of education that is detrimental to the already disadvantaged in society and may only prove to increase the education gap. Because online education seems to be the only option in current times, in order to achieve a more equal form of education for students, the effects of online education must be investigated.
COVID-19 has certainly brought about many ways of learning online, and one of the most widely known ways of implementing an education online is through online lessons or online lectures. In these online lessons, students receive the information they would usually receive from a professor or from a teacher in a classroom or lecture via a video. These videos are usually about as long as the class or the lecture would have been anyway, so are they any different? Well, while the content may not be drastically different, student’s attention levels may be disrupted. In a real-life classroom, students are likely to respond to “social contagion” and norms within a classroom, which would prompt them to receive judgement from their peers if they were to direct their attention away from their professor or teacher. In a classroom students are almost forced to pay attention, yet in an online environment students are likely much more susceptible to distractions that are both on and offline. While the content of the online lectures or lessons may not be drastically different from the content students would receive in a real classroom, the environment is substantially different and likely permeated with numerous distractions, which could prove to have a negative impact on student’s learning.
Online learning does lead to some positive outcomes, as several studies highlight the possible positive implications of online learning. In a study done on online courses in a higher education setting, researchers discovered that there are actually significant ties between taking online courses and student engagement. Additionally, online learning seemed to enhance quantitative reasoning skills, as students were more likely to utilize quantitative reasoning skills if they took online classes. Additionally, a comprehensive study done in 2015 that reviewed a vast amount of existing literature on the effectiveness of online learning claims that online learning is “generally at least as effective as the traditional format.” Additionally, online learning can prove to be imperative for those who are unable to participate in a traditional learning format due to work or family responsibilities. Some scholars also argue that by negating the physicality of a traditional “brick and mortar” classroom, an online learning environment can bring a provocative diversity in ideologies and perspectives by allowing those who would be unable to interact in a real life setting to communicate in a virtual one. This creates a dilemma, as online environments possess compelling educational opportunities, yet they also appear to have a number of inadequacies.
One of the most obvious negative impacts of online learning, is the inability to connect with other students. Studies have suggested that those students who take part in online learning activities fail to foster collaborative learning skills. Even more worrisome is the lack of student to faculty interactions that occur in online learning environments, when compared to traditional classroom environments. While online learning can be conducive to some aspects of learning, certainly other facets are harmed. For example, academic integrity is a big worry, in online learning environments, as it can be easier to be academically dishonest in an online setting. This has proved to be a worry in recent times, because so many students are being forced to take part in an education that takes place solely in an online format.
Another aspect of education that is critical to the success of a student, but that is often left out of the conversation when comparing online education to the traditional “brick and mortar” education is, that of mental health. Research shows that up to 25% of students under the age of 18 suffer with issues surrounding mental health, yet only a small percentage of these students actually receive the treatment they need. While there are current calls to increase awareness surrounding mental health in students, putting students in an online environment may make it even more difficult for school employees to identify when a student may be suffering from mental health issues. Additionally, it could prove to be harder to give students mental health resources if school employees are only interacting with students via online resources. It is already hard enough to encourage people in need to seek out mental health resources, due to stigma surrounding mental health; therefore, it is plausible that only interacting with students in an online environment may decrease the odds of persuading a student to seek out mental health resources if they need them.
Additionally, as previously mentioned, online education may reinforce inequalities already present in society and cause those who are in a minority or disadvantaged to suffer differing amounts when compared to their more advantaged peers. For example, researchers who investigated stigma students on Harvard University’s campus, discovered that students who possess concealable stigmas face severe mental health problems if they do not interact with similar others. Individuals who deal with concealable stigmas are usually minorities, as notable concealable stigmas are being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, suffering from mental disorders, or being in severe poverty. Strikingly, students with concealable stigmas report much lower self-esteem and negative impact of their stigma when compared to individuals who have concealable stigmas or who do not possess any stigma at all.
In fact, students who had concealable stigmas only reported higher self-esteem and less negative effects of their concealable stigma if they were among others who possessed the same concealable stigma as themselves. These students already do not have much contact with similar others and, therefore, suffer immensely because of their concealable stigmas. In an online educational setting, minority students like these would have even less interactions with similar others and would therefore face even more negative consequences than they currently do. As has been reiterated above, online education affects students in a variety of ways; however, it appears that online education can adversely affect the weakest of students and place them in an environment in which they would not thrive. COVID-19 has already proved to negatively impact minorities more than it does the more privileged individuals, but it is clear that it also may adversely affect disadvantaged students.
One part of the education equation that has not been discussed is the plight of teachers and professors in this pandemic. Just as students have been forced to stay at home, teachers and professors have too! They have to figure out the best ways to give students the information they need to succeed, yet still evaluate student’s learning in a fair manner. Research suggests that online learning may not be ideal for teachers and professors, citing that teachers and professors are not properly trained in how to manage and maintain an online classroom. Likewise, during this COVID-19 pandemic many teachers and professors were thrust into the depths of online learning with no prior training how to effectively convey information to students via an online database. When teachers are not properly trained to instruct in an online learning environment, the quality of online courses suffers, and therefore students do not receive the standard of education they deserve.
For the first time in documented history, almost all students across the globe are learning in an online environment, as opposed to the traditional classroom setting (Basilaia & Kvavadze, 2020). Of course, online learning is the only option for students during this time, but from the information cited above, it appears that online education is not a commensurate substitute for in-person education. For one, while some students may thrive in an online learning environment, it appears that vulnerable students may suffer academically at a greater extent in an online classroom when compared to their experiences in traditional classrooms. Furthermore, mental health issues in students could prove to be more difficult to identify if students only interaction with school officials is online. Moreover, many teachers are not properly educated on how to effectively run an online classroom, and even if they are, they may lack the resources to successfully do so. Of course, our society has no other choice but to continue online learning until the pandemic is over; however, we must work extra hard to assure that students are receiving the best education possible.