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Experiences in Distance Learning and How to Make It Better

By Owen Su, Grade 8
Experiences in Distance Learning and How to Make It Better

Distance learning (DL) has become inevitable for schools around the world, and it has taken teachers and students by surprise. As educators continue to consider the best ways to approach this new reality, it might be helpful to hear directly from students about their experience with DL.

Communication is everything

This transition was abrupt for me. I was in Taiwan during the Chinese New Year break when the virus started to become serious. My family delayed our flight back to Shanghai, where we live and go to school, because of the virus, so I started DL in Taiwan.

At first it was challenging. Finding the correct assignment and figuring out how to meet up were laborious. Aside from using Schoolology and Newsela, teachers also used new online learning platforms such as Teams and Zoom. Assignments were everywhere and there was little organization.

Even worse, the workload was extremely unbalanced among different subjects. One class might have a workload of 15 minutes while another required several hours! The screen time issue was also quite severe for me; my Mac showed an average of seven hours of usage per day. Additionally, focusing on my work was another big issue; the infinite number of resources on the internet also meant infinite distractions.

Luckily, these issues were eventually resolved, or at least mitigated, over time. I started to rest between tasks and to eliminate distractions; moreover, the teachers organized the assignments in one place after receiving a lot of student feedback. Slowly, as I got used to DL, it became a regular routine, as regular as attending school.

To help hasten this process of acclimation, I have one main suggestion to share: always communicate with students and prompt them for feedback. Communication is everything; it is the ultimate solution to almost every problem. Without the collaboration between students and teachers, it is impossible to tell whether a lesson is good or not. That is because the teachers aren’t the students, so they can’t understand our experiences precisely.

Here is a helpful analogy. Trying to do DL without communication is like trying to lead a company without knowing its financial status—it is impossible to do it right. In these uncertain times, the best way to improve a lesson is to adjust it to meet the students’ needs. Teachers can even go deeper and ask students to provide feedback through a reflection sheet. Going forward, teachers need to identify the pros and cons of DL in order to enhance the virtual classroom experience for all students.

Pros and cons of DL

DL is just a different method of learning. While switching from one method to another, it is crucial to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each. Here is the essence of what I observed in this 12-week time frame.

The two most significant pros and cons will be discussed in detail; they are time differences and flexibility. To begin with, time differences are a substantial issue when scheduling live lessons. This issue is less severe in public schools, as all students are concentrated in one locale. However, in the international community students and teachers are interspersed around the world. That makes scheduling online lessons extremely difficult, as asking students to attend a midnight session is unfair.

The best way to mitigate this issue is to survey students about their locations. Then, set up two identical classes for the two time zones that are most populated. If certain students simply can’t attend, record the class or schedule a one-on-one session with those students. This isn’t the perfect solution, but it allows most students to have quality and synchronous classes.

The flexibility of online learning is one of the few advantages DL has over real-life classes; going forward, it should be utilized more efficiently. This flexibility allows students to tackle assignments at their own pace; more specifically, they can adjust their workload or take more or less time to finish a given assignment. For example, a teacher can provide additional resources for students that don’t understand a concept or frontload all instructions at the beginning of each week. That way, students can customize their progress, allotting more time to mastering concepts they don’t understand.

What is working for Shanghai American School and what isn’t

Copious new resources and learning methods have been introduced lately. Some of them work better than others. The methods that are working and not working for our school are listed below.

Online lessons are one of the most efficient ways of approaching DL. Not only are students able to ask questions (which they can’t do while reading introductions), they are also able to focus better. If a student is watching a video or lecture, that student can’t ask questions, as it is one-way communication.

By forcing students to turn their cameras and audio on, a teacher is also forcing them to focus; it is impossible to game or watch movies and not get noticed. As a result, online learning should always be prioritized over one-way instruction.

Physical education (PE) by choice is a very flexible and adequate option, as it can be adapted to different student’s needs. In this model, a student does an activity of his or her choice then provides evidence of the activity, such as heart rate monitor data, photos, or parent signatures. The teacher, meanwhile, provides workout resources and hosts online no-equipment workouts. This method is really beneficial, as it can be customized according to a student’s needs, which vary drastically in a DL paradigm.

Huge video files are time-consuming. Many international students don’t have ideal internet access, as they may be away from their homes. Watching long instructional videos is hard, and uploading even a five-minute video can take up to several hours. A way to alleviate this problem is to compress a file, but that will lower the resolution. Another way is to stream the video, but this doesn’t resolve the uploading problem. The best solution, as agreed by most teachers, is to use audio only or hold online lessons.

DL hacks

Distance learning is new and challenging for all students and teachers. Over the past 12-week period, teachers and students at SAS shared learning tips to make DL more efficient and organized. While it is impossible to list them all, I will introduce some of the most common tactics.

For starters, removing distractions is paramount to learning. Due to the fact that there aren’t any teachers or students to keep us in check, it is relatively easy to lose focus. Turning off notifications, blocking certain websites, and deleting games are all helpful.* Constant distractions during an important meeting or test are a huge impediment.

The Pomodoro technique—a famous time-management method in which one works for 25 minutes then rests for 5 minutes—is very useful in DL. Since we are required to sit for long stretches of time, we can use these five-minute breaks to jog in place or stretch. That way, the eyes, mind, and body are all recharged in this short timeframe. This can be really beneficial if there is a large project, or when the workload is really heavy.

Last but not least, write down what needs to be done. Because classes might release all assignments on Mondays with nothing coming due until Friday, DL tends to generate overdue assignments. Worse, a student often doesn’t realize he/she has an overdue assignment before it is marked incomplete. As a result, writing down all assigned tasks in different categories is highly recommended. Then check things off as you finish them. Not only does this prevent overdue assignments, it also improves organization and reduces stress.

What I am missing the most

DL doesn’t have some of the exciting and fun features of school. What I miss from school are equipment, after-school activities, and social interactions. To begin with, without equipment from school, it is extremely hard to really dig into a lot of subjects, such as science, art, PE, and design technology, which all involve proper equipment. Acidic chemicals have to be mixed inside test tubes!

After-school activities are free classes that many schools offer; these activities allow students to explore their interests and learn different skills. Some common ones include sports, band, and robotics. However, with the move to DL, all of these activities have been cancelled. That is terrible news for many dedicated students who have been preparing for a competition, trip, or final performance all year long.

Lastly, I miss social interactions in school. There is just something about actually being near friends and teachers that is different from seeing them online. Video chatting and texting are excellent ways to stay connected, but they don’t replace being physically present. One might come to a grim realization that the people one is talking with are pixels on a screen, and their sounds are produced from a computer.


DL may be a really new and undesirable paradigm for a lot of education communities, but the coronavirus situation leaves schools with no choice. Instead, teachers and students should work together to acquire the best education possible despite our many constraints. It might be quite challenging at first, but DL will get better as more people get used to it. This article is meant to hasten that process, letting teachers know what it has felt like to be a student transitioning to DL. Hopefully, your DL plan will work out, and all our schools will continue to thrive during this challenging time.

Owen Su is a Grade 8 student at Shanghai American School.

*If you are using a Mac, the Screen Time feature is really helpful; it can track daily usage, block websites, and limit games.

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


08/12/2020 - Cindy
Hey Own Su,

Your article is so well-written and comprehensive that I think every teacher should read it to understand how to adapt to distance teaching.

Your description of the challenges around DL make me realize how incredibly hard this must be for kids. Being tethered to a computer screen all day sounds like torture for young people who need movement, activity and social interaction.

I don't know who I feel more sorry for -- the students or the teachers because your piece makes me understand just how hard this has been for both.

Thank you for your excellent article and I wish you the best of luck in the upcoming school year. I do hope you'll get to reunite with your classmates and teachers in person soon!

Keep up the good work!