The Hidden Lives of Online Learners

Nuthall, in the Hidden Lives of Learners exposed the diversity of experiences and learning – between students in the same physical classroom. Variation between how our students are experiencing remote learning is wider still. My next two posts attempt to explore and then navigate the complexity and challenges resulting from our sudden lurch to remote learning.  

Image by Paul Kaspar

Mohammed, his school reports state,  is a ‘highly-capable hard working and conscientious student’. Met with enthusiastic praise of him at parents’ evening,  his mother shrugs her shoulders and tells you it’s nothing to do with her. She doesn’t need to nag him. He just quietly gets on with it. She’s clearly very proud of him. Two weeks ago, at 9:00am on  Monday morning, Mohammed logged into his school emails and immediately burst into tears. 

Olivia never receives such shining endorsements. Her mother is still very proud of her. She muddles through school, generally successfully – relying on more organised friends and her own quick-wittedness to keep her below the radar and out of trouble. Twice in the past couple of months she has dropped out of remote learning entirely – only for a few days each time- but now she feels permanently behind. She’s already worrying about her plans to be a lawyer and is writing off the summer to catching up with what she’s missed. 

Meanwhile, Jess is thriving. She doesn’t miss the daily commute, form-time or indeed much of what previously constituted her typical school day. She thinks her teachers have given just enough steer and the right amount of freedom. She appears to be learning more successfully than before lockdown and is developing fantastic organisational and study skills along the way. (read her thoughts and comments on the contrasting experiences of her best friend, boyfriend, and trainee teacher brother respectively here

Conor’s experience has been different. “Now it feels that everything is coming at you from one channel so it becomes more obvious what the scale of the workload is. The ‘trick’ ( school and the breakdown of learning) is gone.” (read his full comments here).

The complexity of the remote classroom: 

In some ways, little has changed, some students are sailing through, some are struggling, some need extra support. However, the proportion of students in each category has almost certainly shifted, and not for the better. Furthermore, in normal times we teachers and leaders are often able to anticipate and respond to the challenges, pinch points, and emotional outbursts which are a part of the school experience for many of our students. We also have systems and support in place for many of the wider life challenges which young people face. 

A number of these processes are overt and deliberate – they appear in our handbooks and we train new staff into how to implement them. Much of what schools are and do however is rather more tacit. Michael Polanyi stated, of tacit knowledge, that ‘we know more than we can say.’ Riding a bike is a form of tacit knowledge – we know how to do it or we don’t – but we cannot adequately convey this knowledge in words. Schools do more than we can say.  How much of this can and is being done remotely?

Whilst life can be challenging, in the main, humans are resilient. The young people above will likely be fine in the long run – however the situations they are in change over the coming months. However, I am still concerned that during this extended period of school closure it is harder to help students as we normally might.

We are no longer  experts in our students’ daily experiences and behaviours and the actions we can take to support them. The changes of tac and ad hoc conversations which would be prompted well before Mohammed burst into tears in front of us – are not easy to build into the online learning environment.

Our newfound naivety is not something to ignore. We can improve and learn through thinking carefully, through making the best bets which we can, and by working hard to seek the sort of feedback which can help us improve. Experience can bring expertise – though this is not automatic. Reflecting, collaborating with other experts and, most importantly, working hard to better understand how our students experience what we are providing can all help. Over time, we can hope to refine the working models which underpin what we do – so that the gap between our actions, and how they are received, is a narrow as possible – for as many as possible!

What was lost when normal schooling stopped? 


Habits, routines and rituals:

Schools help us learn to manage time. They squeeze the future into a predictable repeating timetable. From a practical perspective this means that once Olivia manages to get up in the morning and come into school you would be foolish to bet against her learning something relevant, in some subjects on any given day. The new normal changes the odds considerably! 

Humans need some routine and predictability. Each year, I hear a number of year 13’s expressing the anxiety – anomie even- induced by a dawning realisation that what has seemed so solid and predictable for seven years will soon cease. For a lot of our students, this has happened rather more abruptly – and without any clear idea of how long this limbo will continue or what will come after it. 

For some this will have provoked anxiety. For others, initially at least, it will have been a welcome change – freedom from the arbitrary restrictions that a school timetable imposes. A head of year spoke to 47 year nine students recently. When he asked if they missed school only 1 of the 47 agreed. The others replied with differing degrees of no – from a shrugged ‘not really’ to an adamant ‘absolutely not!’.  

These responses can be interpreted in a number of ways. Perhaps it’s reassuring that most are untroubled – happier even-  with their changed life situations.  Perhaps they reveal very little – reflecting students’ bravado or idealised versions of what school closure represents rather than the daily reality they are experiencing. Just yesterday I was asked about how I’m faring in lockdown, I replied with a positive 8/10. Only careful follow up questions would have revealed the mood swings, negative days and frustration which has coloured some of my time in recent weeks! 

Alternatively we might see something else that has been lost. Schools (and the adults in them) are good at making students do things which they would not necessarily freely choose to do. In the long run, some of this is probably good for them. Not doing these things for a sustained period could be problematic.  

Physical peer interaction 

As a non-teenager it is unclear to me how big a deal this is. Does social media largely replace it? How much do face-to-face and ad-hoc interactions matter? Do the social media apps and digital spaces at most of their fingertips provide much of, or more than what is physically missing? 

Daily interaction with teachers

Many teachers are experienced and confident in their subject and the means by which they teach it. They also read and respond to students in a way which is hard to mimic remotely. This is the ‘magic’ of the classroom which Mark Enser writes about. In any given week each of the three young people above would likely experience at least one ad-hoc interaction with a caring adult. Perhaps a timely encouragement, a joke,  an acknowledgment of particular effort, or just a question about whether they are ok. 

Schools provide much more on a daily basis.

Food; prompts to to think both in ways and on topics which students would not encounter unaided; space for minds to wander as they do when they are bored;  time away from a screen; time away from home;  physical and mental first-aid; ad hoc life advice and course correction, plus all manner of other random experiences – some of which they will remember long after most course content has faded in memory.  

Why is he not working?

Conor is struggling because all that school did for him is being squeezed through one ‘channel’ and he is no longer an expert in how to process and respond to it all.  Many of us teachers are experiencing the same problem from the other side. 

Teachers have always had to be mind readers. We observe out students’ behaviours – writing correct answers; leaning back on a chair; pinching the child next to them; completing homework; grinning sheepishly – and then we try to infer the motivations behind them. Why did this child behave in this way? What do I need to say or do to elicit positive behaviours, to help this person and make learning more likely?!

Personally, the sudden lurch to remote learning feels very much like my first year in teaching. My own anxiety and uncertainty around the act of teaching has increased – in line with a commensurate drop in my confidence and knowledge of the basic building blocks of online learning. My capacity to read the learning landscape is low resolution at best, and the actions available to me feel rather more clunky (and less automatic) than I have become used to after 15 years of teaching. 

Maybe he’s just not motivated to learn.

I don’t see Mohammed crying. I don’t know how many messages he gets per day, what his home is like, or what other departments are demanding of him. I just see that he’s stopped working. That’s weird I think, Mohammed is normally a great student. Maybe he’s having problems with motivation. Low motivation is essentially a low-resolution proxy for all manner of unknowns. Bluntly adopting a strategy of raising Mohammed’s motivation could prove counterproductive.

It might feel like an explanation – but it’s a vague one at best, and essentially serves to mask all that I don’t know. Furthermore, it is quite possible that actions I take to remedy the situation – informed by my fuzzy picture of what is happening and limited understanding of how to effect positive change  – could actually compound the problem!

Motivation to learn is not really a thing. 

Motivation as a discrete generic attribute is not really a thing. 

Motivations – internal prompts to engage in particular behaviours such as school work  netflix marathons, real marathons, eating marathons, calling friends, arguing, going to sleep, getting out of bed etc – will differ for each of our students. 

How do students’ contexts differ?

We don’t know much of the physical environment and resources which our students are working in and with. 

A few weeks ago  one of my students was reluctant to share audio and video on a live lesson. I assumed she was not fully attending to the lesson , or perhaps just shy, and that if I could get her to try it out for a while, the lesson would improve, she would feel more engaged and would voluntarily repeat this in future. 

It turned out that she was working in a small conservatory, with her sister on another call, and an actual lamb which needed bottle feeding in her lap. She had turned her camera and audio off to hide their bleating (lamb and sister apparently).  A pressing need to practice animal husbandry  probably only rarely competes with our live lessons for students’ attentions, but noisy siblings and the following will often vary from house to house: 

  • Access to physical and digital resources 
  • Access to a calm work-space and wider environment
  • Time available – which may be limited by paid work, care-work, domestic chores etc. 

Our students’ bandwidth – literal and metaphorical – varies considerably. Even those in houses with pretty good internet connections (and 1:1 devices) may struggle to access a live lesson whilst siblings and parents are on their own calls. 

Bandwidth is also a nice metaphor for attention.  Our capacity to mentally attend is limited. Current events; ailing family members; aggressive family members; hunger; worries about the future; social media notifications; all of place demands on a student’s mental bandwidth. 

Habits and routines drive much of our day to day behaviour. They are learned fairly slowly (though how long it takes varies more than popular culture suggests) and are often highly sensitive to specific environmental triggers – the things which prompt them to kick into action. For some students their study space will trigger useful habits and routines, for others the kitchen table, their bedroom or the sofa will do quite the opposite. 

I was recently speaking with a couple of students about their potential return to school in ten days time. One has chosen to come in – she has a terrible habit of procrastinating when at home she tells me. The other is choosing not too – the travel, the hub-bub of the classroom, and the anxiety she feels at times all make the prospect unappealing and possibly counterproductive. 

Interactions with other people can boost or hamper momentum – recognition or praise from teachers, parents or peers for example, or unexpected events – a broken laptop or baby-sitting a sibling all morning while Dad is in an important work meeting. Once momentum is lost it can be really hard to get back on the horse. Work builds, emails stack up, this can prompt students to further retreat or fall into unhelpful behaviours rather than tackling what appears to be an unsurmountable (and growing) challenge. 

What problems has restricted schooling produced? 

So, Does it matter? Do current restrictions to normal schooling constitute a significant social problem? I think there is reason to be concerned –  but would recommend exploring the nature of the problem we likely feel compelled to resolve with caution. 

Some students have a lower quality of life now because schools are not functioning as normal.

This matters now and any steps we can take to reduce the effect of this change are worth exploring. This is an end in itself – without need to justify in relation to long-term learning gains or losses. Some schools knew this already – serving high numbers of disadvantaged students makes it self-evident and integral to what they are and do in normal times. Other schools may not see this so clearly – in part because, for most of their staff, significant social problems are more an occasional concern for a handful of students rather than a day-to-day reality for many.

Schools do more than they can say.

Over time schools have evolved into complex social systems which defy attempts to neatly summarise what they are and what they provide to each individual student who attends them. They are not actually magical – what they do is real, substantive and (in some cases) very important to the daily lives of students. However, as we may struggle to identity quite what ‘it’ is – we probably also feel uneasy when our normal mode of operation is halted. Listening carefully to students and staff may help us identify new ways of generating something of this magic in a radically different context.

What about the learning gap? 

Beyond core literacy and numeracy, at secondary school at least, students will likely forget much of what they learn in our courses. Specific knowledge gaps are, in the light of this observation, less of a concern in and of themselves.  However, schools provide a more level playing field than children’s’ homes upon which students can play out their GCSE and A-level courses. Increased unfairness is arguably bigger problem than the knowledge gaps themselves.

If all of year 10 or year 12 learned less because of school closures then there may be no significant problem for the long-term. The amount of content in a GCSE or A-level is arbitrary. The vast majority of us forget almost all of it. Grades serve mainly to differentiate between students – but cannot be taken as clear indication that they knew or understood any single thing. But – we like to think that grades are a product of effort (and perhaps ability) over a time, on a fairly level playing field.

The playing field never has been level – but as regards remote learning it is less so than ever. A small proportion of students may actually learn more as a result of the school closures. Many will struggle for reasons of access, time, space, bandwidth (literal and metaphorical) and the habits and routines and support which their school and homes foster.

What can we do? 

Over time I have become fascinated by the social complexity which can be found in schools – or even within a single classroom. It is, only helpful to explore this complexity. if it eventually generates clear and relatively simple actions for those of us who work in and with said complexity every day.

In my next post I will present what we are doing practically as regards remote learning within my Psychology department.



3 thoughts on “The Hidden Lives of Online Learners

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s