for high school students during the COVID-19 epidemic in Slovenia
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought along many structural social, economic and political changes around the globe. Significant changes also took place in the educational process, as schools have switched to distance learning for a longer period of time during the pandemic. Students have consequently faced many obstacles due to changes in the educational process. Our study aimed to examine the most frequent barriers that high school students faced during the second wave of the COVID-19 epidemic, and differences according to student’s gender, school year and place of residential settlement. The results indicate that the two most frequently faced barriers to distance learning were missing working with other students and missing the teacher’s explanation, which was reported by more than a third of students. 39 % of students reported no barriers out of seven measured in our study. Finally, female students reported more barriers than male students, as did those living closer to a school than those living further away.
Key words: distance learning, barriers, COVID-19, educational process.
COVID-19 pandemic has brought along many structural social, economic and political changes around the globe. Significant changes also took place in the educational process, as schools have switched to distance learning for a longer period of time during the pandemic. Students have consequently faced many obstacles due to changes in the educational process.
2. Distance learning during COVID-19 pandemic
Distance learning has been an important solution to providing students, teachers and other school workers with a safe study and work environment during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. The modern-day information society includes wide use of information-communication technology (ICT), including a high proportion of households in European countries having access to the Internet, including broadband. For example, the latest Eurostat data shows that in 2019, the share of households with internet access in the EU-27 countries has increased to 90%, while in 2009, only 64% of EU households had internet access (EUROSTAT, 2020). In 2019, Slovenia was just below the EU average, with 89% of households having Internet access.
ICT and the Internet have been increasingly used by educational institutions around the world since early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In Slovenia, the first closure of primary, secondary and higher education institutions took place in mid-March 2020. In May, schools were opened for the lower grades of primary schools, which was then followed by the opening of the upper grades of primary schools. The majority of high school and tertiary students finished the 2019/2020 school year from home. In the autumn of 2020, during the second wave of the epidemic, the school were closed again after a few weeks after the beginning of the school year. They partly reopened for some groups of primary and secondary students in February and March 2021, while tertiary students have not yet returned to faculties by March 2021.
Such data indicates a firm reliance of Slovenian educational institutions on distance learning, also enabled by the large proportion of households with internet access. However, despite the many benefits of distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, switching to distance learning also brought about numerous difficulties for the students, who reported mainly organisational problems during distance learning. As one student put it: »In the beginning, we received so many instructions that I did not know where to start«; (Gradišek and Polak, 2021: 300). In addition, students also faced other barriers to distance learning, particularly the individual type of studying, but they also battled with decreases in study motivation (ibid.). Other reported barriers included difficulties with access to study literature (e.g., due to closed libraries), communication problems with their professors, the extent of school work given by professors, being often disturbed by family members during distance learning, and less effective in studying (ibid.). Particular intense challenges were present for the implementation of practical forms of the study process (Plevnik, 2021).
Students also reported barriers in terms of their feelings and changing emotions, indicating that the COVID-19 epidemic and lockdown impacted their psychological wellbeing (ibid.). Indeed, research shows that the COVID-19 pandemic also has significant health consequences, besides the (potential) infection with the COVID-19 virus itself. In a study of students in Slovenia, Podlesek and Kavcic (2021) found that compared to non-students, students reported experiencing higher levels of generalised anxiety, loss of perceived control and pandemic-related difficulties.
Our study aimed to examine the most frequent barriers that high school students faced during the second wave of the COVID-19 epidemic. The majority of studies from Slovenia and around the world have examined tertiary students, while lower education levels are much less researched.
3. 1. Sample
Students of three types of secondary school programs (professional programs, vocational programs and grammar school students) in secondary schools in the Podravje region completed the online survey in the third week of November 2020 (N = 602). Class teachers were invited to distribute an e-questionnaire among students, and students voluntarily completed a survey that was completely anonymous.
3. 2. Measurement
The online survey covered several items. In addition to items on barriers to distance learning, questions about motivation, school success, communication between teachers and students, etc., were included in our survey. Six barriers were examined, whereby students chose all those barriers they were facing during distance learning (1 – Yes; 2 – No): “I share a computer with family members, so I can rarely use it. “, “I don’t have a place to study in peace. “, “I do not have the appropriate equipment to be able to follow distance learning (computer, headphones, printer, internet connection, etc.). “, “I can’t ask anyone if I don’t understand something. “, “I do not receive feedback whether I have solved the task correctly.” and “I miss the teacher’s explanation.”
Figure 1. Students’ barriers to distance learning during the 2nd wave of the COVID-19 epidemic
Figure 1 indicates the frequency of students’ barriers to distance learning during the 2nd wave of the COVID-19 epidemic. The two most frequently faced barriers were: missing working with fellow students and missing the teacher’s explanation, which was reported by 33.7% of students. Not receiving feedback was the second most common barrier, reported by 15.3% of students. The third most common barrier was indicated by the item “I can’t ask anyone if I don’t understand something.”, selected by every eight student. This was followed by students reporting not having the appropriate equipment to be able to do distance learning (computer, headphones, printer, internet connection, etc.), not having a place to study in peace and sharing a computer with family members, so students themselves could rarely use it.
Figure 2. The frequency of the number of students’ barriers to distance learning during the 2nd wave of the COVID-19 epidemic
Figure 2 shows the number of students’ barriers to distance learning during the 2nd wave of the COVID-19 epidemic. 39 % of students reported no barriers out of seven examined, which was the largest proportion of students. One in for students reported one barrier, and every fifth student reported two barriers. Three or more barriers were reported by 14.1 % of students.
Figure 3. The proportion of students reporting no barriers to distance learning during the 2nd wave of the COVID-19 epidemic by student’s gender, school year and place of residential settlement
Finally, Figure 3 indicates the proportion of students reporting no barriers to distance learning during the 2nd wave of the COVID-19 epidemic by student’s gender, school year and place of residential settlement. We see that more male (39.5%) than female students (25.9%) reported experiencing no barriers. Second, there were no substantial differences in students’ barriers according to the year of study. Third, those living further away from school (45.7% and 35.4%) had fewer barriers than those living closer to school.
Our study found that the two most frequently faced barriers to distance learning of surveyed high school students were missing working with other students and missing teacher’s explanation, which was reported by more than a third of students. Almost two out of five students reported experiencing no barriers out of the seven barriers we examined in our study. We also found that female students reported more barriers than male students, as did those students living closer to school, compared to those living further away. No substantial differences were found for barriers according to the year of study.
Our results support the prediction that distance learning has impacted students, but not all students equally. It seems that female students were particularly negatively affected. Interestingly, those living further away from schools (suburban and village areas) were less affected by distance learning, probably due to less time used during the school day for commuting to school. Scholars and practitioners have lately often emphasised how lockdowns and distance learning would increase social and educational inequalities which already existed before the pandemic. For example, it is well established that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have greater learning difficulties and lower educational achievement. A widespread switch to distance learning most likely exacerbated these differences. For example, students from poorer economic backgrounds may have greater difficulties with distance learning and studying due to objective barriers, such as lack of adequate internet access, lack or inadequate access to other aspects of IC technology (e.g., computers, tablets, etc.). In addition, subjective barriers might also increase educational inequalities. For example, students with higher levels of motivation before the lockdowns probably had higher motivation during the distance learning phase. At the same time, among lower motivation students, the motivation may have decreased more rapidly during lockdown phases.
Our results indicate that a substantial proportion of high school students experienced at least one examined barrier during distance learning. In should be taken into account that only some barriers were examined. Future studies should analyse other challenges and barriers high school students faced during lockdowns, including due to lack of socialising with peers and friends, communication issue, health and wellbeing consequences etc.
Distance learning brought many challenges, barriers and difficulties for students of all educational stages. Our study indicates that three out of five high school students experienced at least one examined barrier to distance learning in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Decision-makers in politics and education, and also education workers and parents should be informed on how the lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the everyday lives of students. Distance learning requires many adjustments for students; therefore, parents and teachers should strive to help students overcome barriers in times of national and global health, social and political crises.
- EUROSTAT, 2020. URL: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Digital_economy_and_society_statistics_-_households_and_individuals (18. 03. 2021)
- Gradišek, P.; Polak, A. (2021). Insights into learning and examination experience of higher education students during the Covid-19 pandemic. Sodobna pedagogika, vol. 72: 286–307.
- Plevnik, M. (2021). The challenges of conducting practical exercises in the scope of an adapted educational process in higher education institutions during the Covid-19 epidemic. Sodobna pedagogika, vol. 72, no. 138, 308–320.
- Podlesek, A.; Kavcic, V. (2021). Generalised anxiety in Slovenian university students during the Covid-19 pandemic. Sodobna pedagogika, vol. 72, 322–341.