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  • Arjun Sheth, Health Educator

E-learning and Unlearning During a Global Pandemic

Clop. Clop. Clop. [Pause] Creaaaak. I closed Snapchat and tossed my phone under my pillow. The sound of slippers outside my door was a cue to conceal the contraband that all too often unleashed my father’s diatribe against screen time. I was born in 1997, part-Millennial and part-Gen Z, and by high school, I was programmed to anticipate the classic parent-child dispute: my parents’ generation often cast digital technology as an obstacle to genuine connection, lionizing instead a simpler, analog past. Growing up, I was made to feel that texting was not as legitimate as in-person chats, that FaceTimes were not as significant as actual face time, and that distance learning paled in comparison to physical classrooms. Now—as an educator living through a global pandemic—I am challenged to unlearn this internalized skepticism of electronic communication and find substantive ways to connect with students from afar.

If you have any connection to a school-aged child today, you are likely familiar with some of the difficulties of distance education. In fact, if you are a teacher or parent or (dare I say) BOTH, you could probably write me a blog about the challenges of implementing remote learning during a public health crisis. This spring we experienced difficulties with Zoom fatigue, both in students and educators. We noted more variable attendance and participation rates. We lost the ability to connect with some students who lack reliable technology access, and we lost the ability to connect students with each other. Indeed, as a health educator who specializes in sexuality and puberty education, the thing I miss the most about in-person classes is watching students interact, challenging one another to create a supportive environment in which to discuss some of the most taboo and complex topics a student might face. It is rewarding to witness the students, once quiet and tentative, grow into confident discussion about healthy relationships and the human body.

Nonetheless, it turns out a distance learning format has its perks, even when it comes to sex education. Some students report increased comfort learning about the functions of their bodies from the privacy of their homes. They benefit from increased proximity to trusted adults while learning sensitive content, and virtual classroom functionalities afford increased information flow: anonymity can encourage students to inquire boldly; polls grant students the opportunity to learn more about the beliefs and psychology of their classmates; and private chats between student and teacher enable a more democratic classroom where no single student can dominate the conversation space.

As shelter-in-place promotes a new online standard, we of all ages turn to the exact digital media often deigned damaging, distracting, and even dehumanizing in order to stay socially connected, entertained, and educated. However, instead of questioning whether this virtual reality is substantial enough—a habit perfected in my youth—I am inspired to lend this technology the legitimacy that today’s youth so easily afford it, helping me both to mitigate a generational tension and to embrace the paradigm of this pandemic.

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