Blank Stares and Black Screens

The pitfalls of virtual learning and the challenges of post-pandemic education.

A downward trend

The email that summarized my abysmal teaching experience this past term arrived on the final day. A student contacted me in a panic after I sent the class a reminder of a campus-wide schedule change. Confused because our hybrid mode alternated between virtual and in-person sections, the student thought our twice-weekly course met only once a week. They had missed a full fifty per cent of classes without realizing it. Perhaps, an honest mistake; the student apparently went the entire term without checking the class times and topics in the syllabus and without noticing that they were missing crucial course elements.

Cases of students so completely and utterly lost in a virtual haze have become commonplace during the pandemic. Before the Omicron variant of COVID-19 temporarily re-shuttered classes, the 2021-22 school year was heralded as a triumphant, albeit slow and incremental, “return to normal.” Yet, the semester proved anything but normal—especially for those like me who taught in the hybrid format preferred by many institutions.

Hybrid is an inherently flawed format for large classes, in which it is impossible to simultaneously manage virtual and in-person components. Despite the presence of numerous wonderful and engaged students, this course ended up being the worst course I have taught. In the past twenty years, I have not encountered students more lost, or such an overall decline in student work quality and morale—even compared to when I taught the exact same course a semester earlier.

Although my experience can be dismissed as anecdotal, almost every academic colleague that I have spoken to who has taught a hybrid or virtual course has told me of similar experiences and concerns. The accumulated negative impacts of almost two years of virtual learning are becoming harder to ignore and signal a deeper and wider educational crisis that will reverberate far beyond the pandemic’s end.

However, the depths of this crisis may be obfuscated by another consequence of the pandemic: the inflation of grades. A global phenomenon considered a humane response to pandemic stress; professors and school teachers reduced student workloads, liberally used curves, and made assignments easier during the pandemic.

Shifting expectations

Coming out of the pandemic, one of the main challenges facing educators will be how to restore pre-pandemic standards. In this most recent course, my own incipient efforts to ensure university-calibre writing and critical thinking were met with fierce resistance. I have never witnessed so many protests about grades. Based on student meetings, emails, and my teaching assistants’ experiences, I would estimate there was a tenfold increase in the number of complaints about grades compared to pre-pandemic years and a substantial increase in such objections from the previous term.

More than the contents of the complaints, what struck me was the particularly aggressive tone with which some students argued about their grades. Students would write to me or my teaching assistants to explain exactly why their grades were wrong and confidently assert the grade their work deserved. While it is well observed that there has been a rise of angry outbursts during the pandemic, especially in retail sectors, this trend clearly extends to universities. My four teaching assistants all told me of feeling harassed by belligerent students and, in one case, even threatened. No doubt, this is a consequence of our digital culture. We all know that the anonymous and distancing effects of the internet tend to bring out the worst tendencies in people.

I am not the kind of professor who cares about decorum, but a more general and basic decline of civility and politeness was palpable, extending to student emails that read like texts to friends or parents demanding course materials or arguing over deadlines, with zero punctuation or even a polite greeting. The largely anonymous student Discord channel—which, unfortunately, I often found myself monitoring for potential cheating—devolved into grievances and gripes about grades, course content, teaching assistants, and me. Giving the students the equivalent of a blue book essay exam with a flexible two-week window for submission, I was called a “b*tch *ss” by one student who, rejecting any criticism as legitimate and insisting their work was A+ quality, wrote, “I want to throw a tomatoe (sic) at him.” I can laugh this off, but untenured and contract faculty without job security are likely to worry that such feedback will affect their future work prospects.

Worse than the angry outbursts of a small minority, teaching during the pandemic has been characterized by a concerning level student passivity, best exemplified by virtual students keeping their cameras off during class to listen only, instead of engaging with me or their peers. Rather than stimulating discussion about course content, questions have almost exclusively revolved around course requirements.

The anxiety and insecurity provoked by the pandemic has translated into an increased demand for certainty in learning. I have never encountered such a strong demand for step-by-step instructions on every aspect of a course, to the point where exercises became something closer to “fill-in-the-blanks” assignments rather than engaged and open-ended learning opportunities. This, in my mind, is completely antithetical to a university’s mission of developing creative, critical thinking skills that can be leveraged to apply new concepts and integrate new knowledge.

At the end of the course, I was so exasperated that I was tempted to change my approach for future classes by using multiple-choice exams that emphasize rote memorization over building the kinds of skills I believe are so important. I realize there is nothing new about these concerns, and none of them were created by the pandemic. But, much like the mental health crisis that existed prior to March 2020, the pandemic has sharply exacerbated many pre-existing conditions. Plagiarism, already rife, multiplied exponentially during the pandemic. Even after my university instituted a mandatory training session for first-year students, we still found numerous cases of both overt and more subtle forms of plagiarism.

This article is not meant to demean my students. They are suffering, stressed, paying, and feeling lost, and none of this is their fault. They are also struggling to reconcile the high tuition fees they have been paying with the less-than-ideal university experience presented to them during the pandemic. As the most visible figures of authority students interact with, it is understandable that their anger, frustration, and confusion would be directed at their professors.

The attention crisis

The unfortunate truth is that, after two years of inadequate virtual education, many students are not prepared for university. Most first-year university students were 16 years old when the pandemic hit, so they have been particularly impacted. They did not choose a Zoom education but have had to live with the consequences. Even with hybrid classes being allowed this past fall, numerous students raised concerns about the lack of options because many professors refused to teach in this format. Several students told me that my class was the only in-person one they had.

We now understand the toxic consequences of too much screen time, especially for young adults. Yet, our university policies have largely treated virtual learning as a harmless alternative to in-person exchanges. While we are currently having a broader conversation about the harms younger students suffer as a result of virtual schooling, especially in terms of their psycho-social well-being and cognitive and educational development, this conversation must include postsecondary students as well.

Unfortunately, many university administrators still see virtual classes as an opportunity to draw a limitless number of international students from around the world whose high and unregulated tuition fees can increase institutional revenues. To justify this strategy, university administrators point to a supposed substantial minority of students who now claim to prefer virtual to in-person classes. We are told students like the “flexibility” of virtual learning.

Virtual education was required due to the pandemic but just because it offers more flexibility for students does not necessarily mean that it improves education outcomes. When I asked students who chose virtual rather than in-person classes “Why?” their answers rarely identified learning conditions, but instead focused on convenience. For example, one student told me they did not like to commute to campus. Another said they preferred not to go out when it was too cold. Others claim to prefer virtual schooling because it makes it easier to “multi-task.” But being in a class demands unadulterated attention. The idea that you can multi-task while learning, like the student who told me that they listened to my course while working a construction job, is a huge problem. That the already existing “attention crisis” will be exacerbated because the pandemic is another part of the problem.

We must reject arguments for virtual learning that are founded on motivations of revenue generation, cost savings, or convenience. When it comes to education, pedagogical considerations should always be the priority.

Post-pandemic challenges

Unfortunately, even after restrictions are removed and we return to in-person education, getting students back on campus may still be a challenge. When restrictions were briefly lifted in the fall term, before Omicron hit, I was able to invite all my students to physically attend class, seventy per cent of whom had said they preferred to be in person. However, barely any came. The issue was campus-wide. Poor attendance has clearly been encouraged by the pandemic practice—necessary for “asynchronous attendance”—of posting lecture recordings online.

This lack of attendance reflects larger social anxieties generated by pandemic public health measures. Students frequently used the term “desocialize” to describe their experience during the lockdowns as they have missed many critical rites of passages that mark fledgling transitions into adulthood, such as proms and graduations. They have lost out on group activities, and, even then, their in-person physical activities have been structured by social distancing measures and masking.

A struggling student who described themselves as extroverted and social before the pandemic told me their fears of being around other people. Even for the small minority of students who came to class in person, what used to be a noisy din or hum of pre-class student chatter that would require a few moments to call the class to attention was replaced by eerie silence. Whether due to the awkwardness of masks or social distancing, students are not interacting with each other as they did before the pandemic.

Another challenge of bringing students back to the classroom will be how to address public health messaging that has raised risk concerns for everyone. For example, a recent CBC story about the eventual return to campus at McGill University featured a student declaring, “I am so scared. I don’t want to get sick and die.” Many young and healthy students who are triple vaccinated continue to have health anxieties and it is troubling that so many are so worried. Of course, there are students who fall into vulnerable categories who should be accommodated, but how do we encourage the majority of students who are double and triple vaccinated to return to the hallways and classrooms of our universities? The health anxieties of students will persist far beyond any declaration of the pandemic’s end, but anxiety alone should not justify keeping classrooms shuttered or forcing faculty to deliver hybrid courses.

We cannot forget that this has all been a grand social experiment. None of this would have been possible a decade ago when broadband internet and videoconferencing platforms were far less accessible. While we bemoan the effects of technology on our lives, we have now allowed it to hijack our education systems. It is easy to forget the massive failure of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that were once seen as the future of education but resulted in terrible outcomes and poor completion results. These lessons were largely put aside in the panic to quickly move courses online as a “temporary” response to the pandemic.

Many of the negative impacts of online learning may be inevitable, but they can and should be mitigated in the academic terms to come. It is a responsibility that administrators and faculty share, not just to enhance student educational outcomes, but to recreate conditions where students are inspired to collaborate and socialize with each other in an academic setting. If not, we will be letting down a generation of learners and jeopardizing their post-pandemic futures.

This article was first published on Academic Matters and has been reprinted with permission.

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