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The Loneliness of Online Learning

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

2019 was a normal year. It was the year my daughter matriculated. Normally. She went to school and had the usual teenager experience of ticking off the last-ever school events: camp, the last swimming gala; the anxiety of prelims, final exams, where to go to university; what to wear to the matric dance and whether or not to go to the end of the year Rage. Then came the new world and she became a lonely online learner.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of learning online?

The advantages of online learning are easy:

  • Online learning allows for flexible study times and more time to see the family.

  • Online learning is supported by an array of multimedia systems and presentations. These systems can enhancethe learning process.

  • Online learning incorporates people in rural areas and home schoolers.

The disadvantages of online learning are harder to face:

  • Online learning eliminates the need to step out of your house. This encourages loneliness and isolation.

  • Traditional school systems incorporate sports into their day-to-day culture. Online learning circumvents the health and social benefits of sporting activities.

  • Continuous online learning creates it own health and mental issues. The process of sitting behind a computer or even phone screen leads to fatigue and lethargy.

lonely online learner

The Pandemic Begins…

2019 was the last normal year. Sometime around the end of December, as we were celebrating the new decade full of hope and optimism, someone sat down to a delicious meal of bat, prepared from a wet market in the city of Wuhan, China, or that’s how one of the stories go. In any event, the world has never seen ‘normal’ again.

The Class of 2020 bore the brunt. Not only faced with the anxiety of achieving grades acceptable for tertiary institutions, emphasized perhaps overly so in our society, gone were the teachers’ ready answers to questions, and the words so often heard in the classroom “I can see you look confused, I’ll explain this again”. Gone was hanging out at break, debriefing, and collaborating with friends over shared experiences. Gone were sporting events, school concerts and matric dances. The class of 2020 are blamed, whether fairly or not, for initiating the second Covid-19 wave due to their school-leaving festivities.

Online Learning: The New Normal

Normal was replaced by crash courses on Zoom and Teams – names that most people were happily ignorant about. Learners were grounded in their own homes to join online classes. Young and old, educators and learners had to become instantly computer-literate. From pre-school teachers to university professors an extended holiday was all they had to transition to online platforms such as Big Blue Button and its ilk. Gone were the familiar classroom routines and boundaries that primed a group of learners for work and study. Technical issues abounded. Classes were disrupted, extended, or cancelled because of inconsistent connections. Added to this was load shedding, which regularly forced students, or teachers to miss a lesson.

The World is Locked Down

In the beginning, lockdown felt like an extended holiday. No long commute to and from school. Your teacher didn’t know if you pressed the mute button and went off to get a cup of tea or watched your favourite TV series on your cellphone during a lesson. It was novel and new. Class in your pajamas propped up in bed, Googling answers to tests using Quizlet and getting your best results ever! This was particularly problematic amongst university students. Fierce academic competition amongst undergraduates to secure a place in a post-graduate course has led to an increase in plagiarism in non-invigilated exams.

Pros and Cons of online learning

There were some advantages to lockdown, and one for our family was that working from home gave us a greater opportunity to bond as a family. Because there was no one else to interact with, we had a chance to develop a relationship which deepened as we communicated and shared our feelings more openly and with greater tolerance. I know this is not true for all families, as the crime stats on domestic violence and violence against women attest. Children who were victims of bullying may prefer online learning and are more productive at home where they feel safe, although cyberbullying is a reality online.

Mental health dangers to learning online

But humans are a social species. Soon the novelty of online learning wore off and long-term isolation, coupled with the uncertainty about when and whether the current conditions would ever end, has led to an increase of mental health issues. Loneliness, hopelessness, anxiety, and depression caused by the isolating effects of lock-down, are issues that may follow the child or adolescent throughout their lives, causing them to struggle with the normal social challenges experienced as life progresses.

Recently a new phrase has been coined known as ‘Zoom Fatigue’. It refers to the feeling of exhaustion that accompanies hours of facing a screen, and during online classes there is often a danger of information overload which causes mental exhaustion. This is such a problem that Stanford University has developed a ZEF Scale (Zoom Exhaustion and Fatigue) to help scholars, students, and

ducators steer through the pitfalls of online learning. You can access the ZEF Scale here.

My daughter was not a good scholar. School, and the subjects taught there did not cater to her interests. But when she started university, she was like a duck in water! Orientation week introduced her to the immense potential and opportunity a young adult should have, joining clubs, meeting like-minded people following the same path as she. She came home to tell us about the amazing new things she was learning in lectures, navigating her way through registration, libraries, and lecture halls.

An environment vastly expanded from the schoolyard. This lasted for two months. Since then, she has been in her bedroom for two years. There is no differentiation between lying in her bed to sleep and waking up and moving a few paces to her desk. Her life has shrunk more than imaginable. For her, her university years so far hold no new fun memories, no new and wonderful friendships, just a long, hard slog in front of a computer screen. It requires enormous strength of character to remain motivated and immense self-discipline to stay on course, and she has my greatest respect for managing it this far.

Where To from Here?

The sad truth is that for some young people, loneliness has become the new norm. How will this generation venture out of their cloisters and face the world? How will they find their forever partners, or even just their “that one didn’t work out” partners? I hope for their sakes that they are able to adapt and find their way in a world that will have a new normal, because that is the world they will inherit.

Online Learning has improved

Much has changed from those lonely days of the lockdown, and there is no doubt that we will never entirely go back to the old world of learning. There is however good news. Online teachers and tutors have adapted. Presentation skills and technical mastery have improved, and its possible to have a quality online learning experience. Online learning is here to stay, and with that, finding a quality online tutor is a worthwhile endeavor.

Take the loneliness out of learning and book an Education Matters Online Tutor.



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