Weighing Pros and Cons: How WCI Staff and Students Feel About Distance Learning

Photo by Kezea Shayne Gamboa

Should distance learning be stopped?

COVID-19 has caused in-classroom education to be substituted with online learning. Online learning provides many channels through which students and instructors interact with each other including email, online chat, and video conferences.

This interaction is important because the COVID-19 pandemic gave governments no choice but to close schools. Schools, then, have had to adapt to certain conditions being imposed: students and staff have had to stay home and keep a distance of six feet (two meters) from others.

In Ontario, the advice to staying home started at the beginning of the one-week March Break (March 16th until March 20th). Since then, the situation has escalated, and now, school closures have been extended until May 31st.

Now, for the essential question: is distance learning useful? Or does it only fuel students’ existing problems: anxiety and stress? FJORD asked students and staff from WCI and other schools to give their input on this issue.

Photo by Kezea Shayne Gamboa

Pros of Distance Learning

Students are able to make their own schedules.

According to Ms. McGonegal, a Visual Art & Photography teacher at WCI, online learning “forces students to be more of a self-regulated learner which can build life skills and social skills essential for future workplaces.” She also thinks that being able to control their own schedule works for their sleeping patterns and mental health.

“Students have the flexibility to complete work anytime during the day. So they can sleep in if they want and do their school work at night if that’s what they prefer,” says Ms. Hunter, a Math teacher at WCI. 

Another thing that makes online learning beneficial to students, according to Coraly S, a senior student in Cegep de Trois-Rivières, would be not worrying about being late to class, “because it takes not even a minute and you’re connected. If you have trouble with your internet or the connection in general, you just send an email to your teacher and they will be pretty understanding about your situation.”

The biggest want for all WCi students interviewed is to not be forced to wake up early every day to go to school. According to Kia M, a Grade 12 student at WCI, “[For] those who need to take the city bus to go to school, this change has been really good because it saves us a lot of stress.” He also thinks that online learning can give students freedom with their time.

“Learning online gives students experiences to improve their time management,” says Parnia R, a Grade 11 student at WCI. “While being aware of their responsibilities as both a family member and a student, […] students can combine their two lives at school and at home and learn to manage their time.”

Learning at a distance takes away the stress and anxiety of a school environment.

Being nervous in a class especially because their close friends are not there can affect a student’s performance in school. Distance learning helps ease the nervousness and anxiety students might feel because they can work on their own without the fear of making small mistakes in front of others.

“Having people watching and constantly telling what they expect of you can be a lot of pressure on someone,” says Yuni L, a Grade 10 student at WCI.

Ms. Schulze, head of the English as a Second Language (ESL)/English Language Development (ELD) department and a guidance counselor for ELD students at WCI, shared this anecdote: “Parents are reporting that their introverted students are thriving. Why, because they can ask questions from the safety and comfort of their homes without being intimidated or over-talked by extroverts in a classroom. One parent thanked [WCI science teacher] Ms. Olsen, and said that her child is flourishing, where before she wasn’t.” Schulze believes that this is the knowledge that teachers need to take back to the classroom so that they can better serve their more introverted students who have different needs than their more extroverted students.

Cons of Distance Learning

It is difficult to tackle higher-level thinking and problem-solving topics or even get started.

Subjects like Biology, Chemistry, and Physics are challenging because ‘in-person labs’/ group work is difficult to recreate. Ms. Judges, a Science, Biology, and Careers teacher at WCI says, “Discussion is harder to facilitate as there are limited ways to communicate, MANY google/email notifications for both students and teachers, a lot of ‘on your own’ tasks. Managing and giving feedback can be challenging over text rather than in person.”

According to Ms. Bacic, a Grade 11 Math, Physics, and Grade 10 ESL/ELD science teacher at WCI, “[In distance learning,] it’s tougher for students to be able to articulate questions and convey their difficulty with a concept or a problem they are trying to solve.”

Similarly, Hunter says, “Students who like to frequently ask questions or who like a lot of guidance from the teacher will find it very difficult; some find it difficult to figure out what they need to do – either they can’t find instructions or don’t understand them.”

“If a student gets stuck,” Schulze points out, “they might not be able to continue. Also, lots of students are giving up before engaging because the material is too text-heavy.”

According to McGonegal, “content that is difficult for students to understand or grasp can also be difficult to communicate about digitally, especially what exactly students are struggling with.”

Grade 12 Kia questions how he is being taught, “from my experience, we cannot learn as efficiently as if we were in a classroom. Students complete the tasks and assignments, but I’m pretty sure we don’t understand at least 20% of the lessons, because we are not really being taught.”

“I also feel like I’m not absorbing as much information as I can take,” says Grade 10 Yuni L.

Students have less motivation to learn.

While distance learning has been helpful for some, since all students in Ontario are not at risk of having their marks as of March 13 drop, knowing this has also changed how students view classwork. Students may feel less accountability under these conditions, and they might not be mature enough yet to understand the long term impacts of not participating, or they may be very busy with working or taking care of family, or they may just not care if they have been told their mark will not go down.

Science teacher, Ms. Chin, says that students are disengaged “especially if they don’t think it counts. They have already been told that their marks can’t go down after March 13.” Students are doing less and less work since they can just not worry about it and still get good marks.

“Fewer students participate and engage and less often than they would with a classroom setting, meaning fewer students are learning the content, and those who are may not be learning it well,” says Bacic.

Distance learning is difficult for English language learners.

At WCI, teachers post all new content for a week on Monday before noon. This “dump” of material, combined with the scary thought of the pandemic can be very daunting for students, particularly for students who are new to Canada and to school.

Schulze asks, “If you haven’t been in school much in your life, how are you supposed to know how to organize a week’s worth of tasks from four different teachers?”

Schulze believes that online learning makes it harder for English Language Learners who are already spending double to triple time in classes in their second or third language. She says, “There are also lots of cultural assumptions made unknowingly by teachers. For example, I have a student who needed to ‘write a script’ as a course assignment in a non-drama course. This concept is not familiar to many students from other education systems.”

“Feedback indicates, that when ELLs see a huge amount of text and assignments they don’t understand, they become intimidated and walk away,” says Ms. Schulze.

According to Mrs. Malo, an ESL and ELD teacher at WCI, there are many disadvantages to online learning for her ELD students. Instructions in English can be challenging. “Sometimes, I feel like I need to explain the explanation and that will certainly lose the student. This has been an exhausting process for both teacher and student,” says Malo. She adds, “Most of my ELD students did not have the opportunity before attending school here in Canada to develop this intrinsic push to learn [in formal schooling] and thus many have just given up in frustration or they have to meet other family commitments.”

There is a lack of interaction between teachers and students.

According to Bacic, the limited interaction between other adults in the school who work together to support students also has an effect on how much students engage and how successful they are as a whole.

McGonegal points out that “The real-time feedback with their teacher and peers is not there, which can lessen the rewarding feeling when accomplishing a learning goal.”

Parnia P. thinks that when students know that they are not going to talk face to face with their teacher and principal if they don’t finish their assigned work, “they might take school work lightly and act lazy.”

Ally M also believes that since there is no way to talk to the teacher face to face, “sometimes the point of the projects or instructions become unclear because they get lost in translation. You can’t collaborate or learn from your classmates and peers.”

According to Grade 12 Kate V, “There is no face to face interaction. There is no substitute for interacting with a fellow human. There is no self-discipline since e-learning could translate to no learning. Some students may change from fully engaging in the lesson to seeing this just as a tick box exercise.

There are many distractions and responsibilities at home.

Students have had to find space in their homes to learn. And sometimes these homes are busy places that make learning a challenge. McGonegal thinks that students are less participative online because they are struggling to find the motivation to complete work when they are not seeing their friends when they feel it’s safe to check out, and when they have more interesting things that they enjoy doing readily and constantly available.

“Some students live in a small apartment with their siblings and so that will find it difficult to work with the increased noise levels and other stressors”, says Chin.

McGonegal thinks that students who don’t have a quiet place to work may struggle to work in their homes. She says, “there are more distractions at home, and creating a separation between work and relaxation can be a challenge for many families.”

Photo by Kezea Shayne Gamboa

In addition, for Muslim students, this pandemic is now coinciding with Ramadan, which means students are fasting and also very tired from staying up very late, often all night.

While online learning can be beneficial for some, it can also be useless for others. The cons clearly overwhelm the pros of distance learning according to those asked, but the majority still think it should not be eliminated.