Otso started his studies in Autumn 2020. He had realistic expectations from the beginning.
“I knew university studying would be hard. High school was hard, middle school was hard, and I assumed it would only get harder.”
He made a plan to take it easy for his own sake; pacing himself with his studies, especially now during the pandemic. Otso recognized that it would be challenging. Still, he didn’t anticipate the amount of difficulties he would experience with remote teaching in reality. The lack of routine, fewer lectures, more assignments, next to no face-to-face teaching, no clear schedules, and broken sleep patterns are some of the main struggles of distance learning life for him.
The amount of distractions at home has been the most frustrating part of distance learning for Otso. He describes seeing the sun rise and set from his window. He watches the people drive by in their cars, going somewhere else.
“With face-to-face learning, there are fewer things to take my attention and distract me.”
Studying from home without a real-life social context – one person, a screen, and distractions – makes distance learning particularly challenging. Otso points out that ADHD makes it difficult to read and focus. He thinks this gets overlooked and is often “seen as just a wild little boy’s problem, which it is not.”
Positive Social Pressure
For Otso, working together with others makes a great deal of difference. “Working in a group gives me a sense of urgency and motivation and mutual accountability – positive social pressure.” He feels that Zoom breakout rooms are something, but the social connection that creates the ‘right sense of pressure’ is just not there. “I remember at the beginning of term when it was easier to meet up with classmates and we’d get together with a few people. I was proud of myself for how much I got done then”, he reflects.
In addition to doing coursework together, the emotional and social support from classmates is significant: “Our class has been really great about that. There have been lots of crying emojis on our class Whatsapp group and probably real crying behind them.”
He values the great job his classmates have done in being there for each other and being non-judgemental even in hard times.
So far, Otso has also had positive experiences with university teachers being responsive and flexible during distance learning. However, he proposes that teachers could reduce the workload and offer tasks on a schedule that are less open-ended.
“Distance learning gives more flexibility, but for me that is a big no.”
A routine helps Otso remember to take care of himself and manage time effectively. “It really helps keep me focused when there is a specific time to do things: eat, work, move.”
He remembers a seminar at the beginning of the term handling life skills, goal setting, and motivation. Otso thinks that being coached on the importance of these things is not enough if you don’t have a routine to keep the motivation going. In particular, for students beginning their studies and for students with special education needs this is a vital tool that can make all the difference in learning.
“Having a routine in general helps with #adulting too,” he jokes.
Is the University doing enough?
Otso feels that the university has offered some help when he sought it out. He was referred to a psychologist and offered some adaptive learning support.
“I got a paper saying that I had the right to turn in assignments later and was allowed some flexibility by adapted assignment return dates.”
Still, he doesn’t want to speak for everyone.
“To be honest, I don’t know enough to say whether the university has done its best for special education needs learners in general”. He states that, “being a self- advocate was important in making sure I got help and took it.” There may be students who suffer and do not have the tools or knowledge that they need to be proactive and get help.
Despite Otso having a positive experience in getting support, he describes having feelings of being wrong or weird when struggling with distance learning. He started his studies this academic year and the combination of being new to the university and not meeting expectations has been a heavy burden to carry.
“My self-esteem has definitely been affected. I’ve been dealing with depression again because of it. Generally, the distance learning situation has affected my overall physical and mental health.”
Due to the difficulties, Otso is taking the spring semester off and delaying studying until autumn. During his leave he has continued developing his teaching experience by substituting when possible.
Looking forward towards the autumn term he has feelings of optimism and realism. “I hope that everything goes back to normal, but in reality I am feeling that it will be hybrid at best.”
As the interview comes to an end in Tellus glass box number 4, he says something many remote studiers can relate to. “Thanks for giving me a reason to leave my flat… All of 18 meters squared.”
The student-led education event, Burning Questions 2021, featured a workshop on Special Educational Needs provision during distance learning. Participants offered their recommendations for better practice from the student and teacher perspectives.
The number one recommendation from the student perspective was simply: Ask students what works best for them.
Continuing the dialogue between students, university teachers, and administration about what works and what doesn’t work will help make distance learning more accessible to all.
Self-advocacy skills were seen by many participants as vital – even more so during distance learning – and they should be taught.
Minimizing the cognitive burden of distance learning can be done by aiming to make it as close as possible to face-to-face learning.
Empathy, differentiation, and more training are some suggestions participants made for teachers/lecturers.
Time before and after online lecturers for informal discussions can contribute to student well-being and motivation.
Finally, peer support groups and guidance for making an effective daily routine can make learning more accessible for special education needs learners as well as for all students.