Online learning presents question of student engagement

Because of the global Coronavirus pandemic, most schools opted for a virtual learning environment instead of traditional in-person classes. While this measure is necessary for the safety of both staff and students alike, the question of how engaged students are in an online classroom arises.

For math teacher Hector Otano-Vega, most of his students continue to participate in his classes.

“I think we are doing pretty well,” he said. “I still have some students who are out, which I expected, but I am achieving 90% student participation. Most of the students that are not engaged have special circumstances, which is expected in these times. For the most part, my students are engaged; they are doing the work and you can see that in the attendance as well.”

Junior Jennifer Villanueva feels similarly, preferring virtual learning to a traditional, in-person setting.  

“With online school, I am held accountable and am much more responsible for my own learning so I have found that I learn more online, simply because there’s much more self-motivated interest. I think all my teachers are doing the very best they can,” Villanueva said. “At this point, it’s up to the students whether or not they choose to engage. I try to participate as much as possible but it’s a lot harder than when we were going to in person school. ”

However, not everyone holds the same optimism regarding student engagement in an online setting. 

“It’s hard to focus in online school because it is so impersonal,” said a student who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s easier to concentrate on assignments when I am physically in a classroom and there is a teacher there to help if needed. You don’t have to deal with Internet lags that freeze your teacher or having to type out everything you say. Also, you can’t really properly discuss online. There is no collaboration. People are weird about using their microphones.”

Along with the students, some teachers are also experiencing the difficulties of keeping students participating virtually. 

As a teacher in-person, I was able to monitor and check on students and make sure everyone was working on what they needed to. Digitally, who knows if they’re even there?”

— Shelby Hicks

“In class, you’re expected to be somewhere, physically, for an hour and a half,” said Shelby Hicks, who teaches English. “That expectation doesn’t really exist anymore. As a teacher in-person, I was able to monitor and check on students and make sure everyone was working on what they needed to. Digitally, who knows if they’re even there? That’s the hardest part, making sure everyone is participating and awake.” 

Participation in an online classroom can be difficult to achieve, especially as most students do not turn their cameras on in meetings. Now, most teachers are speaking to a faceless class, which is a stark contrast compared to in-person school.

“The biggest surprise to me was people not turning on their cameras,” Hicks said. “It’s weird having a student in my class where I’m like ‘Huh, I wonder what they look like’ or ‘I wonder who they are.’ You really can’t picture them.”

On the other hand, many students have faced uncomfortable scenarios when participating in online class. 

“I try to participate in class but it’s sometimes awkward,” an anonymous student said. “At the beginning, there were times when I was the only one talking in a breakout room and it’s the worst. Y’know how when you’re texting, people can leave you on read? Well now people leave me on heard. So now I just type in the chat if I need anything.

“I think it’s because last year, when we first started online school, all the teachers told us to turn off our mics and cameras when we got into a meeting so we got into that habit. If a teacher asked us to turn on our cameras, I would, but none of my teachers have asked.”

Otano-Vega hopes that students will become accustomed to this new environment and engagement will rise. 

“Now, we have a better understanding of the system and how it’s going to work, students are becoming more engaged. Engagement is about the teacher,” he said. “Obviously, online class is not perfect, but we are trying to get the class as engaged as possible.”