Jeremie Rostan, CAS Coordinator and Psychology Teacher, IB School, Brooklyn, New York

Jérémie T. A. Rostan is a French humanist with over 10 years of experience in education. A graduate from La Sorbonne, where he obtained the prestigious Agrégation, Jérémie has taught a number of humanities subjects and held different middle leadership positions in various international schools. Passionate about educational psychology, Jérémie has authored several books and contributed to many publications on a large variety of topics. Through his reflections, Jérémie T. A. Rostan is looking for synergies between his philosophical background and an exploration of social sciences. Most recently, his work has focused on educational leadership and ways in which scientific research can help inform the best innovative school practices.

As school buildings closed all around the world and schools transitioned to online learning in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, students had to adapt to an entirely different educational paradigm. In my limited experience with my own classes, this has created challenges that translated into an overall deterioration in engagement and performance. Indeed, a common narrative is that the current situation has demonstrated the limitations of online learning, all of which stem from the fact that it lacks the “human dimension” of traditional learning. As plausible as it sounds, this theory does not account for another phenomenon which, I am sure, many other educators have observed: the fact that some students are doing much better (or even better) online than they did at school. This seems to be especially the case at both ends of the spectrum. Why is it that some of my weakest and strongest students benefited from the transition to online learning when most struggled to adapt? My answer to this question will obviously be very tentative, as it is based on a small case study. Nonetheless, I hope that it will help start a conversation that could provide insights into effective ways to differentiate instruction once our schools return to campus. This conversation might even inspire new models whereby, not unlike businesses, schools allow some of their students to work partially from home. Interestingly, this could also be a way for school leaders to limit social interactions, thus creating a safer environment for their community in the fall.

In my case, an important reason why online learning has been so effective for some students precisely seems to be that it misses the “human dimension” of traditional schooling. This might sound paradoxical, but it is not. As important as interactions with peers are to students’ holistic development, the school social environment also creates conditions and incentives that don’t always support learning. For some of my students, working in isolation has clearly helped improve their focus by reducing potential distractions. Indeed, it might also have helped keep “multitasking” under control. Since students tend to go off-task despite direct teacher supervision at school, it seems like online learning should make it even harder for them to stay engaged. In reality, the fact that students can freely check and send messages, glance at their friends’ Instagram, etc. when they work from home makes it possible for them to satisfy their social media needs and even organize their own breaks in more efficient and less disruptive ways. Put simply, students might have less of a drive to “like” their friends’ latest Tik-Tok performance once they start their homework if they have already had ample time to do so and know that they will be able to do it again as soon as they are done.

More generally, some of my students have definitely benefited from the changes to the learning environment brought about by online learning. I am well aware that part of these benefits might not be directly linked to online learning, but rather to social distancing, which made it much easier for some parents to support their children. Still, it is almost tautological to say that an online learning environment is better adapted to a certain category of students: those who fit a traditional school environment the least. Critics often point out that online learning provides less structure, making it harder for students to manage their time or even feel encouraged to do their work. That might be the case for many, but it is also true that greater autonomy enabled some of my students to thrive, for instance by scheduling their work in ways that worked best for them or simply by experiencing a greater sense of control. Indeed, online learning can provide both more freedom and more support to students who need them the most. This is especially true for those with the poorest organizational skills, as online learning makes it much harder to lose important handouts, forget assignments, etc.

Like many of my colleagues, I would assume, my assignments, as well as the corresponding lessons, had to look quite different online. My school implemented a blended model combining independent study and optional office hours. In this new context, students had to be active and do the cognitive lift almost 100% of the time. This did not change much for most but did make a dramatic difference for some who were easily passive and disengaged. Likewise, my lessons had to be much simpler than usual. Not in terms of content, but in terms of design. Having to adapt to online learning myself with strict time constraints, I definitely adopted a “less is more approach”, which translated into more focused learning outcomes and more straightforward teaching strategies. At the same time, and like many of my colleagues, I have played around and experimented with some of the innumerable online tools made freely accessible by educational companies. This has allowed me to create even more diverse and engaging experiences than those that took place in my classroom. Interestingly, online learning has forced me to rely much less on group work than I usually do. Student collaboration is certainly a valuable teaching method: it can be very effective and helps develop important life-long skills. However, it can also be detrimental to both weaker and stronger students, be it only because of the well-known disincentives created by group dynamics, such as social loafing. I haven’t completely abandoned collaborative activities, but online learning has allowed me to set up more effective ones, for instance with greater individual accountability.

Compared to traditional teaching, transitioning to online learning has also dramatically increased the frequency of formative assessments. Indeed, automation, and a lighter schedule have made it possible for me to assess virtually everything my students have been doing for the past two months. There could be an important lesson here. Contrary to what is commonly thought, online learning does not necessarily create a distance between students and teachers. As a matter of fact, the particular model adopted by my school has allowed for much more one-on-one and small-group interactions than usual. From receiving constant feedback to being able to send short “quick question” emails and drop in video chats, my students have effectively been provided with a 9-4 individual support hotline.

All in all, there seem to be simple reasons why some of my students thrived when we transitioned to online learning. For the stronger ones, the explanation is quite obvious. They were always going to thrive. It was simply easier to allow them to, and not be held back by the rest of the class—something we always aspire to but is often hard to implement in a traditional setting. For the weaker ones, my observation is that online learning mostly benefited those who had the potential but lacked the study skills, and motivation. Online learning helped with both. In the end, it largely boils down to Self-Determination Theory, which states that motivation is a function of four different feelings: autonomy, control, competence, and relatedness. Through online learning, these students experienced a greater sense of freedom, responsibility, and ability. They also strengthened their relations with their teacher, and discovered, or re-discovered, that learning can be enjoyable, especially in these dire circumstances.

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