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Overcoming the Challenges of Online Learning During COVID-19

Whether students are in K-12 schools or college, there are unique challenges that come with online learning. Here we take a look at some of the common challenges students face and tips for academic success in remote classrooms.

Author: Kyra Sutherland
Editor: STEPS Staff

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The Coronavirus pandemic has transformed the way we do just about everything. From shopping to exercising to working, nothing looks like it did a year ago, and that includes going to school. The sudden shift to online learning has turned education on its head, and in many cases, it’s the students who are having the toughest time. It doesn’t matter if you’re a K-12 student or in college, learning online is a lot different than learning in the classroom.

Whether it’s staying focused while studying at home or a lack of internet access and reliable devices, the move to digital learning has been filled with challenges, and students and families are looking for solutions. Luckily, unexpected times call for creative problem solving, and people have come up with innovative ways to clear the hurdles associated with digital school. Keep reading to discover how parents and students alike can make learning at home possible and effective and take away valuable resources for a smooth transition.

Challenge #1 Reliable Internet Access

In the digital age, it’s hard to imagine any household without access to the internet, but the National Center for Education Statistics conducted a survey in early 2020 that showed that 6% of households with children ages 3-18 don’t have access to the internet. Another 6% only have internet access through a smartphone.

Limited to no access to the internet has been one of the biggest challenges for both K-12 students and those seeking higher education, as their classrooms have been forced online. Below are some of the solutions that are being offered to help those who are in need of assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Solution #1: Free & Low-Cost Internet Assistance

EveryoneOn is an organization that provides affordable internet options for low-income families. Connect2Compete is their flagship program for qualifying families of K-12 students. They’ve partnered with large companies such as AT&T, Cox, and Google Fiber to provide affordable options to those with limited or no internet access.

Below are some of the common qualifications you may see across the partnered companies. Some are specifically for families of K-12 students and others are for any new customers, including college students and older adults.

  • 200% or below the federal poverty level
  • Households participating in National School Lunch Program (NSLP)/Head Start, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps), WIC, TANF, SSI, or Medicaid, among others
  • New customers by December 31, 2020 will receive 60 days of free internet service
  • K-12 students living in your household

Solution #2: Parking Lot WiFi

Many businesses, public libraries, and schools, though closed to visitors on the inside, have kept their internet signals on or have expanded them with signal boosters to include their parking lots. This has become a lifeline for students of all ages that have little to no access to the internet at home. Many colleges have certain parking lot hours and social distancing guidelines, such as one empty parking space between cars.

This has been especially helpful for students and teachers alike that live in rural areas where WiFi is spotty at best, no matter how updated your hardware is. Students can take their laptops or phones to these WiFi hotspots which allows them to connect and do their schoolwork, watch lectures, and take tests.

Solution #3: Downloadable Content

If accessing the internet is difficult, another option includes working with your teachers or your kids’ teachers to have downloadable slideshows, videos, assignments, and maybe even exams. This will allow you or your kids to connect to the internet just for the duration of the downloads, then you can return home and work on schoolwork there, which may be a more comfortable location. Once the content has been downloaded, students can access it without needing a continuous connection to the internet, making it possible to complete assignments from anywhere.

Advice for K-12 students

It’s difficult to go from interactive learning in classrooms to socially-distanced learning over the internet. This is especially true for students without reliable internet. Though solutions are still in the works, families of K-12 students can reach out to various internet providers in their areas to see what free or low-cost internet options are available. Another option is traveling to WiFi hotspots to connect with teachers and classmates. Since frequently traveling to these hotspots can be difficult, work with teachers to provide downloadable education materials that students can work on from home.

Advice for college students

Limited internet access is frustrating, especially when you’re trying to take multiple classes and complete a lot of schoolwork at once. If your internet access is limited or nonexistent, try to find a nearby location, whether it’s at your school or local library, where you can connect to your classes and coursework online. Keeping your professors up-to-date about your internet situation will help them know how to help you. You may even recommend that professors use as many downloadable assignments and videos as possible so you can use the internet briefly, then do the majority of your coursework at home.


  • EveryoneOn – Internet solutions for families with K-12 students and other low-income households
  • Consumer Reports – Back-to-school help for students without internet
  • Hechinger Report – Creative ways schools are trying to reach students without internet access

Challenge #2 Not Enough Computers

Finding reliable internet may be the least of a student’s worries if they don’t have a device to connect with in the first place. Even if they do, they may have to share with other family members who are also attending school online or who have been forced to start working from home.

A single household could consist of a parent who’s job has become remote, two kids in the K-12 age range currently attending school online, and a college student who was attending the local community college that now has to finish out the semester at home. If the household only has one computer, then four different people have work, classes, and homework to do all at the same time. It makes for a tense and difficult situation. Who gets the computer and when?

Solution #1: Community Computer Projects

When communities began to realize that not all students had the necessary technology to access the internet and complete their schooling online, many institutions and companies banded together to collect new and gently used computers to distribute to students in need. One such non-profit company is Education Alliance, located in Reno, Nevada. The non-profit collects devices for students as well as teaching supplies that teachers can use at no cost.

Students in the Sustainable Future Program have also been reaching out to different school campuses, asking them to donate old computers to be wiped clean, refurbished, and given to students in need.

Solution #2: Device Alternatives

Though computers are ideal when it comes to work and education, a cheaper alternative is moving some of the work to a tablet. Tablets are portable and have longer battery life. In the case of the family with multiple users and a single computer, a tablet could relieve the pressure, allowing the students to watch videos, view presentations, and read assignments and the parent to check email and other essential communications while someone else is on the computer. That way the computer can be saved for the truly work-intensive items that each person has on their agenda such as typing up a book report, doing heavy research, or accessing desktop-specific applications.

If a computer or tablet is not a feasible option, school districts and colleges can look to educators at Hart who are printing packets with instructional materials for students who don’t have computers or the internet.

Advice for K-12 students

Being unable to do your homework can be challenging and frustrating, especially if there’s nothing you can do about it. If you’re in a position where the internet is available, but you don’t have a suitable device or there aren’t enough devices in your home to let everyone do what they need to do, reach out to your school district and see if they have a computer they can lend you. Otherwise, keep in contact with your teacher and ask if printed education packets can be provided until another solution can be found.

Advice for college students

You may have used public or college campus libraries to finish your homework before, but that’s no longer an option. If you find yourself without a device to help you complete schoolwork, reach out to your professors and let them know what your situation is. They can work with you and the school to make sure you have the resources you need to complete your coursework.


Challenge #3 Lack of Structure & Self-Discipline

Going from a structured day at school to a completely unstructured one can be difficult and hard to adjust to. Getting children, especially the younger ones, to sit still long enough to watch a lesson their teacher recorded or taught live online is difficult and can cause them to miss key concepts from the lesson. College students may find Zoom lessons hard to get into with the distraction of smartphones and televisions in the same room. Regardless of the reason for difficulty, solutions such as implementing a routine, creating a school space, and wisely using unstructured time can help students of all ages. Here are some helpful solutions to consider.

Solution #1: Follow a Routine

Learning from home is usually more comfortable than sitting at a desk in a classroom, but at home, there are also many distractions. Sticking to a routine can help students use their time more wisely and complete their classwork on time. Scheduling time for physical activity and nutritious meals can also help students stay on task.

One suggestion is to stick as closely to the student’s school schedule as possible. Waking up and getting dressed, taking breaks, and eating meals at the same time will help things feel more familiar and predictable. Build in blocks of time for schoolwork, free play, physical activity, artistic expression, meals, chores, and downtime. Don’t forget to have time for connection, such as calling or video chatting with friends and family members.

It can also be motivating for students if they’re allowed some input, so if they aren’t old enough to create their own schedule, ask them what they think their schedule should look like and talk about it together. Older students, such as those in high school and college, will benefit from creating their own schedules and taking on that responsibility.

Solution #2: Create a School Space

When you’re stuck at home, trying to create a special space to do schoolwork can help you compartmentalize school from leisure time. Try having a space in your home with a clutter free table where students can do their schoolwork. If there are multiple students, you might try using folders to separate their spaces to minimize distraction and giving each child a personal cubby or shelf for their school items.

Possible areas to convert into a study area include a rarely-used dining room, a corner of the kitchen, or a nook under the stairs. If you’re truly limited on space, sitting on the floor with a tray table while the student leans against the wall for back support is also an option. If possible, try to set up multiple workspaces throughout your home, such as a desk for focused work, the kitchen table for projects, and a comfortable corner for reading.

Whatever you choose to do, try to keep posture in mind. Students will be much more comfortable when their computers are at eye level, they have flat chairs, and their feet can be flat on the ground (or on a box set under their feet if they’re on the shorter side).

Solution #3: Use Unstructured Time as an Opportunity for Growth

Perhaps scheduling specific times to do homework and watch lectures is the easy part, but what do you do with all the unstructured time students may find themselves with now that they’re almost always home? Take a look at the ideas below.

  • For younger kids, unstructured time is great for self-directed play
  • Take time to communicate with loved ones, whether it’s safely in person or over a video chat/phone call
  • Unstructured time allows students to do what they enjoy most – have those options available (i.e. drawing, playing an instrument, building forts, etc.)

Advice for K-12 students

You now have to split your home into a place of ease and comfort and a place of education and work. Children and parents should work together to create a daily routine that is efficient for everyone and to design a workspace that will eliminate unnecessary distractions whenever possible.

Advice for college students

You’re probably already used to managing your own time to get projects and assignments done, but now you have to manage your space as well. Keeping as close to your prior routine as you can will help your day move forward efficiently, as well as creating a dedicated space where you can focus on schoolwork. Keep your space clutter- and distraction-free and design it so it’s comfortable. Don’t forget to use good posture when possible.


Challenge #4 Instructor Feedback & Assignment Help

Before education moved completely online, getting help from your teacher or professor was as simple as raising your hand or waiting behind after class. Now a lot of that face-to-face interaction is gone or greatly diminished. Young students can’t walk up to their teacher’s desk to ask a question, and teachers can’t call up students to give them feedback. College students can’t wait after class or stop in at a professor’s office for extra help. In-person interactions are very important, so during this time when such interactions aren’t feasible, try one or all of the solutions below.

Solution #1: Request instructor one-on-ones

The benefits of one-on-one interactions with your teachers are just as important now as they were before education was pushed online. Requesting a one-on-one from teachers or instructors will help you get the personalized help you need without any classmates looking on, will help the teacher get to know you and where you stand with the online curriculum, and will help you both to build a relationship of trust.

Solution #2: Online tutoring

Another option is to seek out an online tutor. Tutors can help you fill in the scholastic gaps when you feel like you’re falling behind. You can look at websites such as Chegg.com, Tutor.com, or K12.com, the latter specifically providing tutors for K-12 students. As you search for a tutor, pay attention to whether:

  • The service is billed per session or whether it’s a subscription service that offers a certain number of sessions per month.
  • You have the opportunity to pick your own tutor. If so, do your research and read the tutor bios and pick one you think will be able to help you.
  • Tutoring services are available 24/7 or during designated blocks of time. If there are set hours, be sure you pay attention to the time zone those hours are set in.
  • The subject you need help in is covered. Most online tutoring sites cover hundreds of subjects, but others, such as K12.com, only cover the most basic ones, such as math, English, social studies, science, French, and Spanish.

Solution #3: Alternate Online Resources

Sometimes hiring a tutor isn’t an affordable option. Luckily, you can find free videos on YouTube from teachers about pretty much every subject under the sun. Some teach basic concepts while other videos go into more complicated material. The Khan Academy is an example of an institution that provides free YouTube videos for math, science, computing, arts & humanities, and test prep for K-12 students.

Advice for K-12 students

Learning online is new and can be hard to get the hang of. Reach out to your teacher or professor for a one-on-one if you want more feedback and instruction. You can also look into a tutoring service or free online videos that cover a wide array of school subjects.

Advice for college students

Since stopping by your professor’s office after class isn’t an option anymore, reach out to them for a one-on-one if you feel like you need extra help. You can also hire an online tutor for more in-depth and personalized instruction or look up free online resources like YouTube videos.


Challenge #5 Lack of Student Interaction & Feelings of Isolation

When a pandemic makes it necessary to keep a decent amount of distance between you and the next person, it’s no surprise that online students say that they miss in-person interaction with peers and teachers. Whether you’re in K-12 or you’re working on your master’s degree, limited social interactions can take a serious toll on your mental and emotional health. It’s been found that students with poor peer relationships struggle with feeling competent and confident in many different aspects of their lives, including academia. Below are two solutions to help combat these feelings of isolation.

Solution #1: Virtual study groups

Virtual study groups involve a group of students connecting over a video platform such as Zoom or Google where they can study and discuss their classes together. Studying with peers allows students to relearn the content in different ways. They may watch a lecture from their professor, create an online quiz game with flashcards, or create a shared document that lets multiple students collaborate on a paper. Though study groups are most likely to be used by college students, K-12 students will also benefit from working together on projects and having discussions.

Tips for Online Study Groups:

  • Have a Plan B in case your Plan A falls through (if someone’s webcam doesn’t work, what will you do then?)
  • If it’s a larger group, assign someone the task of being the moderator to keep things focused and moving forward
  • Be aware of everyone’s time zone and make sure everyone is on the same page
  • Take advantage of screen sharing so problems can be pointed out directly instead of explained vaguely
  • Find a comfortable place away from distractions – preferably a place separate from the ones where you relax or sleep

Solution #2: Submit Content & Responses in Various Formats

Listening to a lecture can be difficult enough, let alone listening to it from an audio track only. Engagement and social interaction will improve if content is posted in various formats. A teacher may wish to record a video so students can both see and hear him. A professor may create a Facebook group for her class where students can post and respond to each other in a slightly less formal setting. Instead of requiring a written paper, teachers can encourage students to record themselves doing an oral presentation. In a music class, students may record themselves playing a piece of a song and post the audio track. Audio and visual recordings lead to more stimulating interactions, especially since tone of voice can be heard and facial expressions can be seen.

Advice for K-12 students

Losing the social interactions you’re used to from school can be unmotivating and even depressing, but there are still ways to connect, even if it’s online! Find opportunities to make a study group, whether it’s studying for a spelling test or chatting about a school project. This will give you a chance to receive help, give help, and let your voice be heard. If your teacher requires you to respond to another student’s work, don’t be afraid to switch things up by recording your response and posting it, rather than just writing it down.

Advice for college students

Even as adults, it’s important for you to have plenty of social interactions which will help your mental and emotional health. Find some classmates who would be willing to join a virtual study group with you and meet with them often. Another way to feel more connected to your peers is to encourage audio and video recordings instead of the straight written word. Talk to your professor if you feel like it might help you have a more cohesive virtual classroom.