Richards: The mystery behind personal accountability and remote learning

Jason Richards, Staff Columnist

Before this semester, I thought paying attention in class was already hard, as it is. And then, everything went remote. Now, it’s even harder.

The thing is, the physical attendance of a classroom setting puts us in the learning mindset. We see the instructor, the notes in front and we say to ourselves, “Okay, I should take notes here and get some work done.” Now, my bedroom is the classroom, and consequently, that learning mindset has been replaced by the thought of the comfy bed beside me and the fact that the lecture is recorded and I can get back to it later (though of course I never do).

This semester, only one of my classes encourages the use of webcams for class participation. I pay more attention in that class than all my other classes combined, it seems. I don’t know what half of my professors look like. For some reason, there’s this association between seeing the professor teaching in front of me and my own motivation to follow along and actually give the proper attention to the class.

They say the new skipping class is muting your microphone and turning off your webcam, and it couldn’t be more true. In fact, I wouldn’t even call it skipping class. It’s almost a given attribute of remote learning. If the webcam is off, it’s too easy to get distracted and scroll through social media or do other work. Participation is a rarity.

Participation, further, is exceptionally difficult in this new age of remote learning. Something about the daunting task of having your webcam on in front of you in a recorded session brings an argument to the table. On one hand, why should we be required to have our webcams on? And on the other, if we don’t have our webcams on, how can we be held accountable for attendance—both from ourselves and the professor?

Having your webcam on brings you as close as you could be to in-person learning. It encourages attention and participation—but it also brings some discomfort to the classroom setting. A recorded video session in your personal space at home or your dorm room can easily be seen as a breach of privacy or just as a plain uncomfortable situation.

I believe this is why most of my professors don’t care to ask for students to have their webcams on. I also believe this is what makes participation and personal accountability so hard to obtain in a remote class.

For professors, there’s no more “reading the room” to gauge how well a class can understand the curriculum at hand, and for students, there’s little motivation to pay attention. Staring at a screen is tiring, and distractions are amplified in personal spaces that we usually associate with relaxing or sleeping.

It’s difficult to express the argument that it’s just plain harder to pay attention in remote classes. It seems like the simple problem of personal accountability. Can’t pay attention in your bedroom? Move rooms. Can’t stay off your phone? Put it away. Can’t follow the lecture? It’s recorded; watch it later. There’s all of these easy excuses to make, but equally easy solutions to offer. So why is it so difficult to just pay attention?

I haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe I’m just slacking off and going on a rant about why I can’t get work done. It’s probably my fault, but the grind continues each and every day to push myself to pay attention to hours of lecture slide shows and the voices behind them. We can only hope that we adapt and overcome this crazy semester, right?