Online Learning and the Impact on Students – Will Some Students Get Left behind?

I believe that the pandemic created by the coronavirus is causing some significant learning issues at all levels of the education system. Early in my career I was the Director of an Upward Bound program that prepared American Indian students for college. During that time, I learned about students’ learning styles and modalities. I found that it was common for American Indian students to rely on kinesthetic learning as their preferred learning style. American Indian students also learned better in darkened environments and were equally strong as visual and auditory learners. Many students had photographic memories that were geographically based. The most effective strategy we utilized was informal peer teaching. Peer teaching worked because the students were able to communicate with each other more effectively at their level of comprehension. There are a multitude of factors that enhance peer teaching success, including language, cultural backgrounds, cultural norms, ability to interact and understand communicative instruction at various levels and many others. Perhaps we need to learn more about peer teaching strategies given our current crisis.

Many of the American Indian students were gifted athletes having exceptional eye-hand coordination. This probably was inherited from a day when they had to survive using a bow and arrow, atlatl or spears. Total geographic recall was absolutely necessary for survival in the environments that they lived in at the time. Back then getting lost would have been fatal in almost every instance. It was very important for us to know the cultural backgrounds of our students and the mode in which they learned best. One approach was not congruent to success given the varied backgrounds or our students. Our approaches to learning styles were individually focused to better help the students maximize their learning potential. Fast forward to today, where there is a considerable body of research that suggests that learning styles are questionable. I am not intimately involved in education as I was 20 years ago, thus my expertise on this matter may be somewhat dated. However, a compendium of research suggests online learning is less effective than face-to-face classroom experiences.

In those early years in Upward Bound the majority of our students were bilingual, speaking their Native language from birth and later learning English when they attended boarding schools. The primary methodology involved writing and reading following the western methodological theories and pedagogical practices which often times created learning challenges for many of the Native students. Many bilingual Native students overcame the educational challenges by creating their own internal cognitive processes and methods. Many of these students mastered both their world of learning and the educational challenges of Western pedagogical approaches. These students excelled in college because they were able to use multiple ways to process and evaluate information within their learning styles and modalities.

This was equally true for American Indian students who primarily followed their natural learning styles. Being able to learn using both methodologies enhanced their cognitive processing skills and generally created a student who was better prepared when they went on to college.

The reason that I have concerns is that almost every college has moved to online learning. This could hinder students who rely on alternative learning modalities, styles and differing world views to be successful in the classroom. Peer interaction is diminished in virtual interactions and the opportunity to socially interact while teaching and learning from each other hurts some students. As educators who have been thrust into a new learning/teaching reality, we must not lose sight of how we can best help our students.

It is clear that the coronavirus is not going away soon and it is imperative that we implement strategies and identify new resources to help students who need additional support during this period of time. One of the things that is helpful would be a review of strategies that were developed over the last decade to assist all students with disabilities. For example, the Center for Online Learning and Students with Disabilities has an excellent website with updated information and promising practices that will help our students achieve. If you are a teacher, it is important to be more interactive with your students. Teachers should be looking for behavioral changes, increased frustration and any other indication that the student is being distracted from learning. The website for the National Disability Rights Network is another resource for information to help guide your performance while working with our students with disabilities.

We have to continue to find ways to reach those students who are not learning and growing in this new reality. I know this first-hand as my little 2nd grade granddaughter is struggling and I know she is brilliant, no bias here. She is exactly the kind of student who could face challenges going forward. THINK!

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