Updated: May 30
Student motivation is important, but these days it is a challenge due to online learning
Students face the normal difficulties in addition to having to deal with obstacles related to online teaching and learning
Technology can come to the rescue if used correctly
Ask any teacher what their favourite class they ever taught was, and it is sure to feature a cohort of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students. Engaged students are something every teacher wants in their class, and is the utopian dream. In these times of pandemic restrictions, this eagerness is perhaps few and far between. If you asked teachers how their classes are nowadays, there are sure to be a few sighs and comments about how teaching isn’t what it used to be. It’s possible they’re thinking back to the golden days when most learning was face-to-face and you could actually ‘see’ students’ eyes. Nowadays, many teachers and classes have moved online, and the once bright eyes are now blank dark squares on your choice of learning or video sharing platform like Zoom or Teams.
How does this shift of learning and teaching with a move to the digital space affect the energy of classes for most teachers? Teachers and students may initially be off to a great start given the fact that many students are digital natives, and so jumping onto a computer in place of attending a class is done quite easily. The hard part is when the novelty of it all wears off and what’s left is just the ‘black little squares’ that teachers know and silently despise. For the uninitiated, these ‘black little squares’ refer to when students turn off their camera and all that can be seen is a black square where their video should be. Only their name or handle may be visible. Of course, sometimes, this is done and it’s quite ‘legit’ – it helps to conserve bandwidth so that more important processes receive prime space from the network. Other times though, it’s done because this allows a greater amount of freedom to do other things. It’s not uncommon to hear of students cooking their meals or eating them during classes, which is something that doesn’t normally feature as part of a lesson. Better still, there have been cases where student’s go about their daily routine while in class and unluckily for them the entire class hears the background noise of what they’re doing.
What this translates to is that students are less engaged because they can be. Similar to Murphy’s Law where if something can go wrong it will go wrong, the lesson here is that if students can be disengaged, then there’s not much in online learning that stops them from losing focus. Sure, there are some teachers who forbid turning off the cameras and platforms that go some way to holding on to the participants’ attention with unique features like breakout rooms and video sharing. However, the trend is still towards a recipe for teaching that makes it unquestionably more difficult for teachers to hold students’ attention.
The question that many ask in the face of these challenges unique to 2021 is, what can be done to keep students motivated to learn during online teaching? There are tried and true ways of course, and then there are the innovative and more novel approaches which all have their place and time in some way or another when it comes to what works and what doesn’t. It seems that from much of the literature, a strong factor of consensus is that there are key criteria and factors about the class and teaching that must be identified in order to select the right approach.
Being fully engaged is a difficult task in itself for many students because they have to balance and manage their own time, often when they are already challenged with a lot of new sensory and life experiences on top of being in a new environment. When the element of online learning is thrown into the mix, it can seem that the challenges are compounded for students. This is a good reminder for all educators to keep this idea at the back of our minds as questions of why students aren’t paying attention seem to pop up on a regular basis when we see our learning platforms full of those ‘black little squares’.
Wasn’t technology supposed to be the great saviour for teachers, making their lives easier instead of adding to the stresses of teaching and learning? Well, with the direction that education around the world has been headed in places that can support online learning, we’d think that there would be a sigh of relief from most teachers instead of this more reserved anticipation and bated breath. Perhaps, this is a time where we all can reflect and then gather and share our ideas as teams of interconnected and resourceful individuals to find a way forward together. This is, after all, a new era and the best way to step forward with a greater sense of collective success, is to do this all together.
Some useful links to start you off