From Online to Regular School

How to counter impact of online studies and execute a smooth ‘Back to School’ transition

It was Friday evening and my phone dinged to announce a new E mail. It was another announcement from the school asking the kids to complete a page of handwriting over the weekend. While my kids groaned over it, I was delighted. It was a step in the right direction by the school to help students balance the convenience of typing with the rigour of writing on paper. Both these activities are way different if you compare the parts of the brain that participate in executing them and hence honing both skills is critical for the learning process.

Online learning came into our lives out of compulsion and has inevitably become the new normal. What was earlier limited to a few courses synonymous with ‘distance learning’, suddenly became the mainstay of education.

Young children entering their first year of formal education were learning their first alphabets, their first rhymes and their first numbers almost in isolation. They were interacting remotely with teachers and classmates they had never met in person.

This, of course was the best way out under the circumstances as one needed to decide between a raging global pandemic and a small compromise with regular schooling. Even when normalcy returns, online education is likely to persist in some form and we will have to find a fine balance between offline and online education that combines the benefits of both.

A TSI survey (urban) held in August 2021 with parents of school and college going children revealed that over 61% of the respondents were concerned about low participation by students in class. 50% thought that understanding lessons was a challenge. Lack of social interaction and missing the college environment also came in as feedback. Over 78% felt that impact on sports and extra-curricular activities was a critical drawback.

Most parents, a whopping 84.6%, however, thought that the highest benefit of online classes was that their children were not exposed to the risk of contracting Covid-19.

TSI Survey on Online Classes – August 2021
TSI Survey on Online Classes – August 2021

The road back to normalcy for students is likely to be a tough climb. They will have to unlearn their current ways of studying and re-learn the entire processes of assimilating information, memorising and understanding it and reproducing it when needed.

While this doesn’t seem like a tall order theoretically, the learning process, in reality, is a complicated affair that uses multiple areas of the brain.

Here are some of the common observations and insights from educators and parents on how online learning has impacted students and a few suggestions to help tide over the transition phase.

Impact on attention span

The TSI survey of parents of school and college going children revealed that 55.8% of the students in the respondent group had stopped or reduced taking notes and writing and 57.7% were not able to concentrate in class.

TSI Survey on Online Classes – August 2021

This is a significant insight as school time, homework time and play/recreation time used to be distinct ensuring high focus to each activity earlier. The attention span in class has definitely taken a beating with the online mode. Multiple sources peg the attention span of students at 20 minutes even in the normal scenario. While more research is needed to quantify the exact value, there is general consensus that the attention span has been dropping significantly over the years.

The problem of diminishing attention span multiplies in the online setting. Household distractions, connectivity issues, multi-tasking by students and lowered supervision all add to it.

Things to do –

Distraction free environment

Classes should be ideally attended in a location with less household disturbance. This, of course, is easier said than done. Schools/Colleges also should structure their lectures to make it more of a two-way process than a one-way lecture activity.

Activity based learning

Dr. Sridhar, who is an IISc alumnus and an entrepreneur, runs science workshops for rural students through his ‘Avishkar – Science ka Dost’ Classroom initiative, has a positive feedback on online classes. He says, “My experience with online teaching is very fruitful with Activity Based Learning Methodology. Firstly, the screen time of the children is reduced as the children focus most of the time on the activity and not look at the screen. They would look at the screen just for instructions or guidance. Other important aspect is that in physical classes teachers/instructors help the kids when in trouble. In online classes with Activity Based Learning, the children get enormous opportunity to find solutions to their problems.”

Activity based learning – Avishkar

Build concentration

Yoga, exercise, meditation, indoor games like chess, sudoku, puzzles and memory games, music and activities that involve repetitive tasks such as colouring help build concentration.

Avoid multitasking

Eating, searching the net, online gaming, social networking during classes all add to the problem of concentration. Making the learning process more engaging and activity based definitely helps.

Impact on the writing and learning process

Language teachers have shared alarming insights on the effect of online study on language proficiency. Usage of abbreviated spellings and sentences infuriatingly top the charts. Incidents of written work done entirely in capital letters and incorrect spellings also have been reported. Another common finding is of students copying content and pasting the same without understanding the matter.

Nearly 58% respondents in the TSI survey mentioned handwriting as one of the skills that suffered due to online classes. 23% mentioned Non – English as a key area of concern too.

Writing by hand is a critical part of language learning as it ensures hard-coding of the alphabet shapes in memory and establishing an associated neuronal pattern. Writing by hand activates specific parts of the brain, which are important for learning and memory.

Writing and Learning – Simplified diagram

Studies have shown that the stability of the visual representations of letters is strengthened by writing letters repeatedly. Studies have also shown writing skill is the best predictor of reading scores, reinforcing the association between learning and writing training.

TSI Survey on Online Classes – August 2021

Ms. Anamika Bakshi, a language teacher who interacts with students in the critical years of learning explains, “Teaching language requires rigorous efforts in polishing the speaking and writing skills of a child. Different methods and techniques have been adopted to make the learning process simple to grasp.”

Ms Anamika Bakshi interacting with students online

Ms. Bakshi is of the view that interaction happening during virtual meeting is not sufficient for children to interact with peers and teachers other than in classroom hours. She has noticed that the language skills, both written and verbal, have been impacted. There is also a lack of motivation with regards to submission of homework. Students submit home assignments at their own pace as teachers tend not to pressurise them as they are already under stress of not being able to have a normal life.

She further says that to counter these issues, writing is encouraged by involving fun sessions where students are asked to write about their passions and interests or to write interesting letters. These kind of playful techniques involved in the lessons bring a smile on students’ face. In her words, very aptly, ‘language requires practice and not study’ hence teachers have evolved different ways to help guide students towards writing practice.

The problem is much more pronounced in pre-schoolers who are normally initiated into writing by holding their hands and helping them form the correct shapes of letters and numbers. This is crucial for learning. In an online mode this is not possible. Once they graduate to higher grades, they will need extra focus on honing their writing skills.

Things to do –

Write – Write – Write

The best ways to counter the concerns are to ensure students take written notes during class. Homework submission should also be in the written rather than typed form.

A page of cursive or even regular writing, both in English as well as regional language is important.

Excessive use of digital devices

Researchers propose a moderate use of digital technology. Too less and too much are both detrimental.

Students of all ages have, of late, been clicking on keyboards and tapping on touchscreens instead of writing. Even tests and examinations have been modified to suit the situation owing to regular classes being replaced by online classes. The excessive focus on MCQ type of examination papers has ensured high scoring but is not necessarily the best way to judge performance.

Social media provides dopamine led sensations that the users continue to seek more and more of progressively. This happens due to activation of the reward area in the brain. As per a Harvard University study, self-disclosure on social media stimulates the same areas of the brain as those while taking an addictive substance.

Adding to this, use of social media is known to be linked with depressive behaviour and also to exacerbate depressive symptoms. A direct link between the amount of social media use with depressive symptoms is seen more prominently in girls as per a 2020 study by Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Considering that outdoor games and socializing have been impacted, online gaming has also become a significant source of digital entertainment.

Signs to look out for include excessive time spent on digital devices, becoming restless if not able to access internet, ignoring studies and staying up late to use social platforms or online games.

Things to do

Turn off notifications – Notifications draw attention towards various platforms and apps and turning them off is an easy way of avoiding constant distraction.

Devices away – Keeping away the smartphones during classes is absolutely important. Also, usage of smartphones, laptops and other digital devices should be limited to designated hours.

Counter boredom – Physical activity, family games, developing hobbies, reading and learning new skills all help counter boredom which is one of the triggers for use of digital devices. The TSI survey revealed that nearly 50% of the parents had got their children enrolled in activities such as dancing, music, sports and coding among other things – unfortunately most of these still were online but learning new skills online is definitely a notch above unproductive activities online.

TSI Survey on Online Classes – August 2021

Loss of Routine

The digital world works round the clock. Information and messages may come at any time of the day or night. Predictable schedules and routines help students be in control of their environment, plan their daily activities and engage positively in learning. Frequent disruption of daily routine with unscheduled activities can be a cause for anxiety. A study recently published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology suggests that family routines help moderate impulsiveness and oppositional symptoms in children.

Things to do

Mimic normal daily routine

This issue can be countered to an extent by ensuring a daily routine – It is well documented that productivity increases when a routine is maintained.

As we move back to normalcy, study time and non-digital play time as well as time for social interaction, exercise etc need to be built into the daily routine to mimic a normal school day.

We have examined the impact of online learning from an urban perspective in this article. The challenges in rural areas and lower income households are multiplied due to lack of connectivity, infrastructure and devices. In these cases schooling has suffered much more significantly.

TSI Survey on Online Classes – August 2021

Schools are likely to be opened for regular classes soon and teachers and parents can prepare students for this transition in a phased manner. As per the TSI Aug 2021 survey, only 13.5% parents are willing to send their children physically to schools till such time that they are vaccinated. Over 65% parents are not prepared to send their children to schools considering the fear of infection with Covid-19 and over 21% are not sure.

While online mode of learning is here to stay at least in part and will continue to contribute to the educational arena, we will have to mind a middle path which brings the best of both worlds to make education an inclusive, interesting and impactful pursuit.