The Opinion of the Smoke Signal Editorial Board
Look at a typical Zoom classroom. You might catch glimpses of students’ foreheads on camera and see others looking down at their phones, all while teachers try to prompt students to engage with the material.
Eight months into shelter in place, feelings of loneliness are becoming more common — and the downward spiral in engagement and collaboration between students does not help. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial that we leverage online learning platforms to stay connected with peers and participate in class, before solitary, non-collaborative learning becomes the norm.
It is easy to stay in an isolated bubble during online learning simply because there are no requirements to interact with other students and teachers outside of class. Take office hours, for example. Office hours were established to replace more interactive times during in-person school such as Advisory, when students could visit teachers for help, catch up on homework, study for upcoming tests, and talk with friends.
However, now, many tend to utilize office hours as a chance to sleep, play games, watch TV, and finish last-minute homework. Although this was common during Advisory as well, students were still able to have a sense of social interaction, even if it was just being in a classroom with other students.
Even in more structured class time built around lectures and discussions, disengagement is very common. For example, some teachers use breakout rooms to simulate small group discussions in a classroom. On paper, breakout rooms may seem like the best way to recreate a classroom setting as they allow students to have collaborative small-group discussions. However, many tend to stay muted, letting just a few students lead the discussion.
Even worse, the whole room often mutes themselves and sits in silence. Teachers have no way to enforce a discussion since they can only be in one room at a time; some have up to 15 rooms open at once, so trying to jump into every room and giving constructive feedback in the allocated time may be nearly impossible.
Even during lectures, there is an evident lack of participation from a majority of the class. It is understandable that for some, speaking up in a silent room can be nerve-wracking or anxiety-inducing — especially in this learning environment. However, that makes it so much more important to make an effort to participate, as doing so can help compensate for the loss in peer interaction that we would receive in a classroom.
Over time, this lack of engagement can be damaging to student mental health and foster an environment of isolation. The absence of social stimulation often leads to dips in mood or motivation, which not only negatively affects our emotional well-being but also causes a plunge in academic performance.
A June 2020 study conducted by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry stated that “children who had experienced enforced isolation or quarantine were five times more likely to require mental health service and experienced higher levels of post-traumatic stress.” Not engaging in the process of collaborating and asking questions can prevent us from honing valuable skills such as communication and problem-solving — skills that are hard to master alone.
Children who had experienced enforced isolation or quarantine were five times more likely to require mental health service and experienced higher levels of post-traumatic stress.
So, while office hours can be a much needed break at times, it is even more vital to take the initiative to reach out, from working on collaborative assignments with other classmates to asking teachers questions. In classrooms as well, we must speak up and participate in discussions and breakout rooms when we have the opportunity.
Although it might feel awkward to be the first one to spark conversation in any situation, creating discussion is a vital part of learning. It allows for disclosure, which can lead to looking at a topic from a new perspective. Further, according to the National Education Association, collaborative learning has been shown to both develop higher-level thinking skills in students and boost their self-esteem as well — mitigating the effects of seclusion.
The information and skills learned from these discussions are valuable past high school and in any workplace, where teamwork is inevitable, and they cannot be gained anywhere else but in a cooperative setting.
COVID-19 has taken away social interaction among peers during passing periods, waves to friends during lunch, and hands-on classroom collaboration, but that doesn’t mean interpersonal interaction should be forgotten altogether. It might seem intimidating to join the discussion in breakout rooms, answer questions in class, or join a teacher’s office hours. But in the end, taking these steps is crucial to mastering the vital skills of collaboration.
If this lack of participation continues though, keeping within our isolated worlds will inevitably become the norm. The authentic in-school experience is all about forging connections with peers and mentors, and the least we can do during these unprecedented times is try to stay connected through our virtual resources — both for an improved state of mind and a more worthwhile education.
Cover graphic by Opinion Editor Aria Lakhmani