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How to Support Healthy Online Learning

There are so many things that students need that many do not have: safety, quiet, heat, food, a computer of their own, internet access, unlimited data, audio and video equipment … Youth need these basic resources, along with care for their health and mental wellbeing, to thrive.

Dr. Amy J. Ko, Professor at the University of Washington Information School and Adjunct Professor at UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering

Parents may be concerned that their children are spending too much time staring at the computer with the shift of most schools to online learning.

And this is a valid concern.

A research study published in the 2019 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics found that excessive TV viewing and gaming were associated with lower grades for both children and teens.

However, other experts contended that studies on the correlation between screen time and academic performance have shown controversial results, producing not only negative associations but also positive and null ones. It is more important, they said, to focus on the type of screen time and interaction taking place.

Clearly, the subject is difficult to study, and it can be even more challenging to determine ultimate findings related to online learning in the context of health for students.

That said, online education will continue to be a normal avenue for accessing learning opportunities for many students throughout the duration of the novel coronavirus pandemic period, as well as for those seeking flexible learning options from the booming industry.

So, in the immediate period, it would be prudent for parents, students, and teachers to take measures to protect students’ health to the best of their abilities while still engaging in the online learning process.

Below are some methods that students and educators can employ to ensure healthy learning engagement with digital devices in the prolonged pandemic period and in the online learning environment overall.

Meet the Expert: Professor Amy Ko, PhD

Amy KoDr. Amy J. Ko is a professor at the University of Washington Information School and an adjunct professor at UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering. She directs the Code & Cognition Lab, where she studies the human aspects of programming.

Dr. Ko’s earliest work included techniques for automatically answering questions about program behavior to support debugging, program understanding, and reuse. Her later work studied interactions between developers and users, and techniques for web-scale aggregation of user intent through help systems. She also co-founded AnswerDash to commercialize these ideas. Her latest work investigates effective, equitable, scalable ways for humanity to learn computing, including programming languages, APIs, programming strategies, design, and machine learning.

Dr. Ko’s work spans over 100 peer-reviewed publications, eleven receiving best paper awards and four receiving most influential paper awards. She is a member of the Association of Computing Professionals (ACM), the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI), the Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE), and the Special Interest Group on Software Engineering (SIGSOFT). She received her PhD at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, as well as degrees in computer science and psychology with honors from Oregon State University.

Designate a Workspace and Routine

Many people assume that students today are the tech generation and digital natives, so they will naturally ease into an online learning environment. However, this is not necessarily true. Many students are adept in social media but do not necessarily know how to learn online, which requires time and space management.

To excel in classes, students need to establish a specific space for work and study. Establishing a routine is also critical. Sitting in pajamas on the couch in a den full of loud roommates or siblings won’t do.

Scientific evidence backs up the value of developing routines to support academic success.

A 2011 study assessed the combined impact of diet, physical activity, sleep, and screen time on academic achievement in elementary school students in Nova Scotia, Canada. The results found that students who met proper nutrition, screen time, and sleep recommendations were more likely to meet academic expectations in math, reading, and writing.

“Children who met seven to nine lifestyle behavior recommendations had greater than three times the odds of meeting expectations for reading compared to those who met zero to three recommendations, and 1.47 and 2.77 times the odds of meeting expectations in mathematics and writing, respectively,” according to the study.

So students should get up at a regular time, get dressed, and do anything else they need in a morning routine. By creating a workspace and following a system, these rituals can help students mentally and physically prepare themselves for class online.

Students can also consider if they want to use any special tools to support their physical health, like an ergonomic chair, computer stand, keyboard, or blue lens glasses.

Bodies also undergo many strains during the day, but students can address some of the misalignment caused by prolonged, and often physically-static online learning to save themselves from rounded spines, neck cricks, and other compounded pain in the future.

By supporting healthy physical posture and engagement with technology, students can protect their bodies from pain and misalignment.

Secure Basic Tools & Technology

Though seemingly simple, students must identify and acquire what basic tools they need to support their online education. And this may vary from subject to subject.

Game design students may need specific tools to test on and offline gaming techniques; medical students may need tools to practice lab tests; and language learning students may need to download an app or software program so that they can practice listening and speaking exercises.

Some common tools all students will require include a basic digital set-up with a laptop or computer, microphone, headphones, and internet access or data. Again, while seemingly simple to acquire for many, this is not always the case for students from low-income or immigrant families.

“There are so many things that students need that many do not have: safety, quiet, heat, food, a computer of their own, internet access, unlimited data, audio and video equipment,” said Dr. Amy J. Ko, professor at the University of Washington Information School and adjunct professor at UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering.

“Many of the students across the country have none of these things, or only a few, and so learning is nearly impossible,” Dr. Ko continued. “And our local, state, and federal governments have generally done almost nothing to address these inequities. I’m not worried about the students that have all of these things—they’ll manage—the other youth need these basic resources, along with care for their health and mental wellbeing to thrive. Students should focus on those basic needs, so they can care for themselves with others’ help.”

It is true that some states, like California, Tennessee, and Washington, among several other states, are pursuing statewide and local digital inclusion initiatives to support low-income and immigrant students and families without access to the internet or digital tools to support that access.

Even so, the nationwide approach to supporting digital equity is fragmented at best, and state and local officials are often still working to overcome the multitude of challenges that come in ensuring these resources. As a result, many schools and their students still face issues with connectivity and access to online learning opportunities.

“I work across the globe with faculty in Canada, Europe, and Australasia,” Professor Ko commented regarding the fragmented approach to educational resources. “If there’s any one thing that’s helped the low-income and immigrant families there, it’s universal healthcare, well-resourced schools, a deep culture of respect for educators, and a commitment to high value, reliable, well-resourced government. If the United States can work on those, students facing challenging inequities, and worse yet, oppression, will have what they need to survive.”

Students can reach out to their school, local, and state officials to learn about what technological resources and funding are available to support education and access to online learning.

Make Self-Care a Priority

In addition to securing proper tools and creating a physical workspace, students should place self-care and mental health at the top of their list when preparing for learning in an online environment.

By now, many people have experienced Zoom-fatigue and are well-acquainted with the somewhat draining nature of heavy screen time. Part of this can be attributed to the increased burden on our brain to actively process communication through the screen, as compared to in-person interactions, according to a BBC article.

At the same time, experts interviewed by the BBC posit that sole online engagement with the community narrows available experiences related to context-dependent social roles, relationships, and activities. The self-complexity theory suggests that humans find a variety of interactions healthy and that when these aspects are reduced they become more vulnerable to negative feelings.

“I recommend to our own students that they learn to put self-care at their top priority,” Dr. Ko explained.

Dr. Ko echoed the importance of how developing habits around eating, sleeping, and exercise are all an essential foundation for mental health. Beyond physical needs for mental health, she highlighted the critical nature of community and connection when engaging in distance learning models, pandemic or no.

“Find a community—even if it’s just one person—to stay connected, and give yourself opportunities to share your life and laugh,” Dr. Ko said. “No learning is going to happen without adequate self-care and a community of support.”

And the same goes for teachers leading online learning.

Teachers and professors have worked incredibly hard to support students’ learning, and the teaching online in addition to external stress from the pandemic can be incredibly taxing. Therefore, it is important that they also monitor and meet their health needs.

“Teaching is a profession of service and care; we can’t serve and care for others if we don’t take care of ourselves,” Dr. Ko said. “The same guidelines for students apply to teachers. But there are other things teachers can do: re-evaluate what’s essential right now and consider letting go of teaching, learning, and other practices that might not have the same value right now. That might save you time, and ease the burden on students.”

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.