The internet: a threat to academic life?

Nowadays, the internet, the web, has become clearly prominent in academic life. In the context of the current covid-19 pandemic, it has gained even more importance. Indeed, the studies transferred almost completely from face-to-face teaching to online teaching. But is it really a good thing? Is the omnipresence of the web in the studies really positive? If some would argue that the internet was beneficial because it allowed students to advance their studies and teachers to continue their didactic activity, we defend the opposite: for us, it has just been a last resort solution. It allowed the universities to save the day, but it is not a long-term solution and it is now urgent to consider other ways of studying.

First of all, thanks to the internet, students could maintain some contacts with their close friends. But what about their relationships with other students, their peers? If an online lesson works and delivers knowledge, the opportunity of talking with other students and of arguing about a certain topic (while drinking a coffee or at lunch) is nevertheless non-existent. The importance of this parallel life should not be underestimated because it is a powerful way of fixing complex topics and reflexions in our memories. Therefore, the student’s social life was reduced to almost nothing, causing a lack of spontaneity in the learning process. As the students could not create relationships with their fellow students, lessons and academic life became entirely based on content and not on exchanges. Unfortunately, this contradicts a crucial postulate of the social sciences: Lave & Wenger’s “communities of practice”.

Lave and Wenger started with the assumption that learning is situated “in the context of our lived experience of participation in the world [and] is a fundamentally social phenomenon, reflecting our own deeply social nature as human beings capable of knowing”.

D. Block (2007). The rise of identity in SLA research, post Firth and Wagner (1997). In The Modern Language Journal, 91.

The absence of academic social exchanges is thus the first and the gravest problem that universities have been confronted with in the past year. Nonetheless, it’s not the only issue. Having talked about the effects on the student’s social life, we have not yet considered the direct consequences of the increase of time spent in front of a screen. Indeed, the students (and the teachers) had to do everything with the computer: attend or give classes, read, write academic papers, learn and search for information. Although some of these aspects are not due to covid-19 (especially reading, writing and searching processes), others are the direct aftereffects of the pandemic (the online classes). This last point is extremely important: online lessons were the way of continuing to deliver content, but how has this content been delivered? Indeed, one should bear in mind that online lessons are not as spontaneous and natural as face-to-face lessons. In a zoom session, students are often embarrassed and do not dare to take the floor. So, troublesome silences have become the rule rather than the exception in certain online-sessions and this unease has had a direct influence on how content has been passed down: there have been less exchanges and a decrease of quality in discussions. Furthermore, we don’t talk about all the technical issues of zoom sessions that can totally discourage the students to follow a course.

Then, there are further consequences caused by the increased use of the internet and more generally by the increased use of the computer. Firstly, it is harmful for the environment (as we consume more energy). Secondly, it leads us to spend more time at home and less time outside; this can lead to become a bit too home-loving and it can create fears of the outside world, resulting in too much time in a sedentary situation. There are people who do not leave their comfort zone anymore and this is problematic because they are no longer prepared for challenges and confrontations (which of course occur in life). This is in connection with the third point: Some people forget that there is a life outside and begin to live in a distorted reality. Fourthly, it is proved that spending too much time in front of a screen can lead to sleep troubles.

In conclusion, the internet and the computer are definitely not a good solution and it is now necessary (after one pandemic year) to find new solutions in universities. In my opinion, there is at least one thing that we could rethink to improve the situation: the didactic concept. I personally spent three and a half years at the University of Basel (Switzerland) and missed team work (especially in the pandemic year). I think it would be necessary to do more team work at the university (in particular nowadays). By rethinking the traditional way of teaching (with lectures and seminars) and by doing for example small face-to-face workshops (maybe always in the same group to limit social contacts), we could definitely boost the academic socialization and create small “communities of practice” that could allow students to know and communicate with their peers. This is of the highest importance because, as Aristotle said: “Man is a social animal.” May the reader be aware of this last sentence! Social. And not virtual

6 Comments

  1. I agree that traditional classes do not easily transfer to the web, though I would like to point out that online learning can be effective, useful and even enjoyable, if well implemented.
    When the first lockdown forced many schools and colleges to change to online teaching, there were no guidelines, and there was no training for teachers and administrators. The results therefore varied widely. At worst, teachers simply emailed exercises to students, offering no support and no interaction. At best, web platforms were chosen which allowed full interaction. For example, the Ecole des Métiers Fribourg (EMF) allowed teachers to use either MS Teams or Discord. Although Discord exists as a social platform for the gaming community, it worked well for education. For example, it allows break-out groups to encourage teamwork. Teachers rapidly learned how to keep students engaged and doing useful work.
    Online education is probably always going to be a compromise, as real human interaction adds so much. However, there are situations when online learning is really the best option. I studied for an MBA entirely online, because I had to work full-time, and enjoyed good support from my teachers, and good interaction with my fellow students. As the EMF showed during the pandemic, if teachers are properly guided and motivated and the chosen platforms are adequate, good results are possible.
    Please do not write off online education. If the responsible people are properly trained and supported, and the systems are functional and easy to use, it can be very useful.

    1. Thanks a lot for your wise comment! That’s right: I didn’t consider the emergency situation which was the characteristic of the first months of the pandemic last year and I didn’t think about the attitude of students and teachers neither. A big part of the problem was, as you said, that teachers and students had to move to online-teaching without preparation. Moreover, I would add a word: choice. I think there is a big difference if you choose to study online from the beginning or if you are forced to move to online-teaching without having decided it yourself. In the first case, you know what is going to come and you prepare yourself consequently. In that case, online-education could be a good idea and could for example provide a way of studying even if you have a full-time job. Nonetheless, in the second case, you can’t avoid keeping in mind that it only is a last resort solution and that you want to go back to face-to-face teaching as soon as possible.

  2. Thank you for your post.

    Yes, I can definitely agree with much of what you say in your text. The opportunity for students to meet new, and more importantly different, people whom we can learn from is a bit more difficult in a static and awkward environment like Zoom. And though we naturally tend to form groups of similarly minded people (birds of a feather, flock together), it is even easier to avoid people with different perspectives and ideas online.

    Though there are many people who would say that the virtual social realm is equally as social as physical social meetings and events, they are certainly different and I personally find them more quickly exhausting. I would also admit that I am not an avid user of social media for ‘chats’ and hardly ever initiate conversation online with people whom I am not very close with. This closeness is established primarily with time spent in the same space as that person. I have not experienced anything similar with online or virtual social media platforms.

    Though, an idea does come to mind as an advantage of learning through the internet (yet I would understand if you say that it is also part of the problem). Covid has not only forced people to stay at home and made all classes/studies go online, it has also made knowledge and more accessible online. Not all of it is good, I will admit 😅. And there is maybe too much for an inexperienced student to handle well, but a push towards self-learning, through discovery, is equally a valid and powerful form of learning. People have been speaking for so long how classic teaching where a teacher guides their students (specifically in a class room setting) is no longer as viable since there are now so many students in the world, and relatively few teachers. All ranging in quality. The improvement of knowledge and learning platforms on the internet has been growing even before Covid, and now we see that it is still not sufficient and that a large percent of people are not adequately prepared for the shift. Though, as teacher colleagues and friends have told me, a reason why the shift to online forms of learning is controversial is because the resources to access them are not evenly distributed. It has been especially difficult for communities which do not have access to decent laptops, phones and internet connections (for each member of the family who needs it). I could imagine that the majority of people face such difficulties. Hence, the push to return to the status quo of face-to-face classes.

    1. Thanks a lot for your comment!

      It’s indeed an advantage of online-education: it has made knowledge more accessible to everyone. I definitely agree with you on this point! However, I would qualify this argument. I see it with my pupils, especially with the younger ones: If the internet includes an infinite amount of knowledge, you have to know how to search for it and how to interpret it. For this, a qualified teacher (in particular for teenagers) is a must.

  3. Tout à fait d’accord avec toi, surtout pour ce qui est des leçons en ligne. Même si je dois dire que j’ai aussi fait de belles découvertes, notamment dans des cours de langue, grâce aux cours en ligne. En situation de break out room, l’écran se montre parfois davantage confrontant que le face à face réel : cela pousse les élèves à prendre la parole pour remplir les blancs de l’interaction, et surtout à poursuivre l’échange même une fois l’exercice terminé. Il est en fait bien plus compliqué d’échapper à l’interaction qu’en présentiel, où on est vite tenté de se détourner de l’interaction, et des difficultés qu’elle suppose (surtout en langue étrangère), pour se raccrocher à des tâches multiples et diverses. Le phénomène s’inverse pourtant quand on retourne à un échange prof-classe : l’élève est vite tenté de décrocher pour s’adonner à une autre activité en parallèle, d’où pour moi l’importance de privilégier l’oral dans ce genre de cours. J’ai toutefois remarqué des stratégies qui s’installaient au cours des semaines pour garder l’attention de la classe entière.

    Pour ce qui est des cours académiques par contre, je te rejoins totalement. Non seulement l’apprentissage, la mémorisation et la réflexion passe par le contact social réel (et non virtuel), mais aussi la motivation, la concentration et la santé mentale générale en ont pris un coup. Quand je regarde mon entourage dans le monde universitaire, c’est alarmant. Certes, tout n’est pas dû au (semi-)confinement, mais les faiblesses de chacun s’en retrouve violemment ou vicieusement exacerbées. La situation est d’autant plus complexe lorsque les examens approchent. Examens en ligne : le stress informatique s’ajoute au challenge initial. Examens en présentiel : des étudiants qui craquent parce qu’ils ont pris la décision de s’isoler davantage pour ne pas risquer d’être infectés. Toujours le même constat : les contacts sociaux font partie des besoins principaux pour tenir le coup.

    A propos des contacts sociaux, je reviendrais sur les travaux de groupe que tu proposes. L’idée oui, la pratique j’ai quelques doutes. D’un point de vue personnel, les discussions libres en classe m’ont toujours semblées plus agréables et plus riches. Pour moi, les travaux en petit groupe de 3-4 personnes ont longtemps été source de malaise, de stress, d’énervement, et surtout d’ennui, ce que par ailleurs je trouve très dommage. Je pense que les travaux de groupe, ou réflexion de groupe, sont certainement amenés d’une manière qui ne me convient pas. Je n’en ai trouvé que très rarement satisfaction, même si j’ai eu quelques expériences plus positives ces dernières années. En fait, je pense que le problème vient, en grande partie, du fait que je n’ai longtemps pas su appréhender de manière adéquate ce genre d’échange. Même pour faire un exposé à deux, je pense avoir reçu que très peu de clefs. Finalement, c’est comme si on te donne un meuble à construire, mais pas les outils dont tu as besoin pour assembler le tout dans un ensemble solide. En math, si tu n’as pas appris la formule dont tu as besoin pour résoudre un problème, c’est bien compliqué d’arriver au bon résultat, et encore moins de manière efficace. Je pense qu’il me manque encore quelques formules dans ce type d’interaction.

    Après, cela n’empêche pas que j’apprécie échanger avec les autres pour élargir ma réflexion, la mettre en doute, etc. C’est toujours un bonheur de pouvoir le faire autour d’un verre après les cours. Je suis persuadée qu’on avance bien plus loin à plusieurs que seul dans son coin. Et qu’on arrive au bout de ses études, bien moins cabossés… Sur ce point, je ne peux pourtant pas nier que la situation à fait naître une entraide différente entre les étudiants. Finalement, l’isolement est aussi venu souder ou créer certains liens particuliers entre les étudiants, et entre chaque personne en général, et renforcer un sentiment d’appartenance sociale. Mais sur la durée, la bonne volonté tend à s’essouffler, il serait temps de retrouver un peu de bon sens si on veut limiter la casse au niveau de la santé mentale. La corde s’use, combien de temps avant qu’elle ne cède ?

    1. Chère Maïtena. Un grand merci pour ce commentaire dithyrambique! Et pour toutes ces nuances … Je rejoins ton expérience sur les travaux de groupe: j’ai souvent décidé de les faire seul car cela me frustrait de devoir coopérer avec d’autres étudiants, souvent de vrais glandus! Mais il s’agit d’un autre problème … 😉

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