Letter to the Editor: The “new normal” of learning

To the editor:

In the midst of a global health crisis, suffering, fear and anxiety are to be expected. This should not surprise anyone. In fact, these have always been part of life. The anticipation of one’s mortality at different times—especially now—is unavoidable.

Megan Zogby’s latest “Did You Know? Students Still Struggling with Mental Health?” included a 2020 “longitudinal study conducted by the” National Center for Biotechnology Information about student’s responses to Covid-learning environments.

The study was actually conducted by researchers at Lucerne University in Switzerland and posted at the NCBI website; and although it was not a longitudinal study but a web-based survey of 557 Swiss undergraduates across departments (with widely varying response rates), the results were interesting.

Most of the data relied upon as background information was from Chinese studies of students and teachers caught in Covid-lockdown, and its predominantly negative effects on education. I found the frankness of discussion in regard to the the obstacles to learning to be noteworthy, as well as the absence of US-based studies.

“[S]tudents and teachers faced problems when studying and teaching at home…. such as the weakness of online-teaching infrastructures, the inexperience of teachers regarding new technologies, the information gap, the complex environment at home … students have a wide range of distractions when studying at home … not all are able to find suitable spaces for home learning, or studying may be constrained by insufficient hardware and unstable networks. … the abrupt change to exclusively digitalized communication channels was a challenge. Students did not cope equally well with the technical requirements. Some saw the setup of the different IT tools as complex.” In addition, extra work is required, with new deadlines to meet. Different learning platforms used were “frustrating,” and “some of the lecturers lack[ed] digital literacy.”

Any sensitivity in regard to different learning styles as been trampled in the online-digital stampede. It is difficult not to conclude that the emotional health and stability required for learning is missing.

The implicit question raised is whether or not the “new normal” qualifies as learning at all.

If academics have “been thrust into online learning literally overnight” without training or preparation, as seems to be the case, and “the university’s concession that [students] would not, in any circumstances, be marked as having ‘failed’ the exam,” then the end result is not education but an automated pass-through pipeline of social promotional and credentialing.

Within a period of just a few months, higher education has been disrupted in unthinkable ways, transformed almost beyond recognition into a digitized assembly-line. Scott Galloway’s recent critique makes the point that this has always been the case, leaving me to wonder, What comes next? https://theprogressnetwork.org/disrupting-higher-ed/

Glen McGhee, Dir.
Florida Higher Education Accountability Project
Lynn Haven, FL