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The Frustration of Online Learning: Lack of Communication

The Student Perspective on Online Learning


In the first week of the Summer semester, I asked my students what most frustrates them about online classes. A lack of communication was their number one issue, which included professors who were slow to respond to emails and unclear instructions in the syllabus.

In two classes of 61 students, 33 responded to a discussion on the question "What Frustrates You Most About Online Classes?" Eighteen times students stated that communications were frustrating. But then students explained why communication was so important. For example, "communication within the classes can make or break your grade. If communication is done effectively it can also increase motivation. Being able to communicate with a professor and students in the class allows you to gain a different perspective on things and get questions answered. Without communication it makes it hard to turn in assignments on the proper dates and turn in the assignments that fit the criteria."

Poor communications can negatively effect students' grades. "There might be misunderst[andings] about the material that we wouldn’t find out until we did the assignment wrong." Another student noted a similar sentiment but adding that on face to face communication is superior to emails: "I believe that professors can get their point across clearer face-to-face, especially when it comes to how an assignment should look like. If there is any confusion, a student can easily raise their hand for more clarification. However, in an online classroom, the student could misinterpret what the assignment is and could receive a potential zero." All of this suggests that maybe there is a problem with the instructors not responding in a timely manner. As one student said, " The thing that frustrates me most about online class is the lag time in which I ask question and receive answers, if I receive an answer at all."

And students know when their professors are not ready for online teaching. "My professors' effectiveness dropped dramatically upon the change over to the online format." And another student said, " I think the most difficult part was unclear directions, but it was mostly because my teachers didn't know how to use Canvas."

Some students missed the ability for group work or working in pairs. "[I]t is harder to discuss ideas with classmate for more inspirations. Discussing ideas virtually [with classmates]  feels different from face-to-face interaction. I agree that communication is different. My hope is that with the help of the Discussion section on Canvas, there can be more communication and something like a virtual community."

The Impact of Poor Communication

Students used the word "relationship" to discuss their status with their professor and classmates. In an online environment, students found it difficult to create relationships with those two groups. For example, "It's easier to build a relationship with people if you are able to interact with them face-to-face and it allows for a more open line of communication that is immediately versus waiting for the other person to receive the messages/ email and respond. It also allows students to interact with each other and get to know each other on a more personal level, which opens the lines of communication for the students to discuss topics, see things from each other's perspectives which ultimately helps with the assignments."

Some were unprepared for the shift to 100% online and thus saw the online class itself as an issue but not just the lack of the physical classroom itself, rather the issues resulting from not having those on-campus classes. Such as, "Not being able to work in a classroom/school setting [because]  there are more distractions at home." Another student commented, "the home distractions can definitely be frustrating. I've started setting time aside when everyone in the house is asleep, or if I have a slow night at work, I will work on schoolwork around 3am during my shift or as possible."

Nevertheless there are distractions at home that do not exist on-campus and I too feel them such as the dog that needs to be talked, my seven-year-old who wants to show everyone his new kitten (instead of doing his Spanish homework) and Netflix. Students report the same distractions: pets, family members and television.

There was a theme of the superiority of on campus classes versus on line classes for a myriad of reasons such as fewer distractions, office hours, the ability to speak with the professor before or after class, and the ability to get clarification during lectures. One student noted the dialogue angle:

"I believe that professors can get their point across clearer face-to-face, especially when it comes to how an assignment should look like. If there is any confusion, a student can easily raise their hand for more clarification. However, in an online classroom, the student could misinterpret what the assignment is and could receive a potential zero."

Four students noted tech as the most frustrating aspect of online learning. "This is because the process of dealing with the issue is deceptively different from actually solving the issue. I believe that such issues can cause anxiety in students who are not very adept with technology yet are trying out a course that appears to offer more flexibility. Even if the student resolves the problem him or herself or with the help of technical support, much time is spent on something tedious instead of studying or preparing for an exam. That being said, I understand that this frustration might be felt on different levels or not at all--I can easily adapt to submitting work online. However, I empathize with students who may make a submission mistake such as including the wrong attachment. The logistics of managing technology and being a productive student may be a bit overwhelming for others." Then, stuff happens. I wonder how many students are prepared for interruptions with their internet service or computer issues?  One student simply reported, "I'm not completely comfortable with technology."

One student noted the different skill set needed to succeed in the online environment: "Online classes require more self-discipline to stay motivated and keep up with assignments. It requires a lot of checking emails, messages, and announcements. Staying focused can sometimes be a struggle. Knowing what the syllabus says becomes more important than ever when taking online classes."

Overwhelmingly, the students who engaged in this discussion seemed to be taking online classes only because that was the only option. Their collective sentiment was summed up by one of their classmates. "I am definitely looking forward to having in-person classes again in the near future."

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