an illustration of a laptop screen and brain scans in an article about online learning
Illustration by Laura Browning, University of Colorado, Denver

Online Learning Had Many Negative Effects on Young Learners

What effects has online learning had on our brains? Find out what new, cutting-edge research says about the lingering effects of Zoom school during quarantine.

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an illustration of a laptop screen and brain scans in an article about online learning
Illustration by Laura Browning, University of Colorado, Denver

What effects has online learning had on our brains? Find out what new, cutting-edge research says about the lingering effects of Zoom school during quarantine.

The best way to teach children is a heavily debated topic in our society, as education plays a crucial role in the development of young people into adults. From homeschooling to Montessori, there are many different approaches to schooling, and many different beliefs about which is best. However, with the pandemic, intuitions were forced to shift to online, virtual platforms. New research has found that online learning has had significant effects on students’ brains and cognitive functions.

When COVID-19 hit the world in March 2020, none of us were quite sure what to expect. Suddenly the entire social order and way of life changed seemingly overnight, with new rules on how to do just about everything, from going grocery shopping to attending school. No one had heard of Zoom before, but suddenly it was everywhere, with schools shifting their entire curricula to an online format for students ranging from kindergarten to college age. According to the Washington Post, by September 2020, close to 80% of the 100 major U.S. universities were instructing via hybrid format or primarily online. Suddenly, bedrooms and living rooms were turned into classrooms, drastically changing most of the daily routines that students were accustomed to. Their entire learning experience was consolidated into the little screens of their laptops, their only window into the world before the pandemic. Clearly, this new school format was wildly different compared to the traditional classroom setting. Such a transition cannot come into effect without spurring unintentional and unforeseen consequences. So, how did this period of online learning affect students’ brains? The impacts touched on everything from memory to the very structure of neuron interaction.

It first must be examined how online learning for many students is significantly harder compared to traditional settings. As Dr. Zadina, an expert in the field of educational neuroscience, explained, “There might be an increased cognitive load if learners are struggling with the technology as well as the content.” She continued that a “heavy cognitive load would negatively impact their learning.” While adjusting to Zoom, students had to interact with an online platform that they were initially unfamiliar with, making navigating the application take up more of their cognitive bandwidth than sitting in a classroom would. Additionally, students are bombarded with nonverbal overload from the platform.

Have you ever felt like online meetings or lectures feel more draining than regular school? Sitting in front of screens all day, even though you may be sitting in bed, can feel sometimes inexplicably exhausting. Experts have ascribed this “Zoom fatigue” to the nonverbal overload the platform creates for users. This overload stems from four major causes: excessive amounts of close eye contact, high levels of cognitive load, increased self-evaluation from staring at one’s own video, and limits of physical mobility. All these factors sound incredibly familiar to anyone who has used Zoom before. On the platform, you are constantly within perceived eye contact of the teacher or professor and when someone new speaks, suddenly within theirs as well. As Dr. Zadia added, the stress of having to navigate the platform contributes to the high cognitive load of online learning.

Additionally, most users can attest to being distracted by their own Zoom video, checking their hair or their expressions instead of watching the lesson. And all of this is usually being done from a desk or even a couch or bed, for many hours each day all week. Compared to in-person schooling, where one is forced to move around, walking from class to class or to lunch, the differences in physical mobility levels are immense. For quarantine-learners, whole days can go by sitting in bed, clicking from one Zoom link to the next with no reason to stand up and move around. Additionally, in a classroom, one’s eyes are forced to track around the space, following the teacher and different speakers to create an overall more stimulating, immersive learning environment. Compared to the stale Zoom calls, it is easy to see why these factors cumulate in Zoom fatigue and create a negative impact on student learning.

The impacts of remote learning go far beyond students simply feeling burnt out and having a hard time focusing. New studies have found that distance-based learning has been found to affect the transmission between the limbic system and cortical regions of the brain. The limbic system is responsible for generating and interpreting facial cues, which are then relayed to the cortical region to form thoughts. When students’ main source of social interaction is confined to a 2D laptop screen, there are significantly fewer visual cues to stimulate the relay of information between these two sections of the brain. As a result, the students are disengaged from class content, as their cerebral cortexes are less stimulated and therefore generate fewer thoughts.

While older students may have a harder time processing information in an online setting, the consequences of online school are not as severe because their brains are more developed. However, for younger children with brains that are still developing, online learning may leave a more lasting impression. Without the strong, consistent stimuli of a classic classroom setting, the development of important neural pathways that are vital to the formation of memory and social cues are not properly established. “We could be looking at a very different generation,” one expert said.

Remote learning was not an option that any of us chose, but rather a solution to a situation that took the world by surprise. Still, moving forward, it is important that we address the problems with remote learning and the impact it had on students. These new studies reveal shocking information about the consequences of online learning these past few years, and we can only hope that experts come up with ways to negate some of the more negative effects that distance-based learning may have generated and create a better platform using this research.

Writer Profile

Kaitlyn Anderson

Cornell University
Communication, Biology and Society

Kaitlyn Anderson is a student at Cornell University. She loves to explore the intersection between science and humanitarian studies. She lives in New Hampshire where she enjoys hiking and surfing.

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