The coronavirus pandemic is teaching humans all kinds of new things. How to occupy our Saturday nights when the bars are closed, how to get creative with at-home gym workouts, mastering the art of a social-distancing happy hour. In addition to teaching us these new skills, the virus is also changing the way we teach each other. With most schools around the country closed through the end of the year, learning has gone virtual. That’s new and potentially terrifying territory for many teachers who are accustomed to traditional classroom-style learning.
From kindergarten to universities, spring 2020 is the semester of online learning. That means teachers must not only worry about lesson plans and student engagement — already a monumental task — but also become technology wizards. While this poses a series of challenges, it’s also inspiring teachers to get creative with their new digital medium and explore the innovative possibilities of online learning that may endure long after this crisis is over.
From classrooms to Zoom
Social distancing didn’t exactly introduce the world to online learning. Technology has had an enormous presence in the classroom for years, and many children and adults were already taking advantage of online learning opportunities. What social distancing has done, however, is make virtual learning mandatory and necessitated a rapid shift in teaching style.
With just a few days to adjust, teachers have been tasked with adapting their curriculums to work in a virtual environment. And that swift transition hasn’t always been easy.
Megan Baron, a kindergarten teacher in Aurora, Colorado, acknowledged that “there was, and still is, a steep learning curve in this transition, but everyone is really working as hard as they can to make it as smooth as possible. We are all taking on a lot of new technology, strategies, and methods for what works best online. There are a lot of intricacies to think about — making sure that education is equitable in all ways during remote learning.”
To retain a semblance of connectivity, Baron does “weekly Zoom virtual meetings so that the kids can see me and their classmates. They have also responded well to online learning through Flip Grid, which lets them record brief videos of themselves, and other students can then watch their classmates’ videos back. As a teacher I can also leave comments and feedback on all of their posts and videos.”
For higher grade levels, however, the transition to online learning might prove a bit smoother. Academic institutions are more likely to be set up for online courses, and students have likely had more experience with technology and virtual learning.
Matthew Meltzer, the senior staff writer at Matador Network, also teaches writing for digital media at the University of Miami. Of his classroom’s transition to virtual learning, he says, “It was smooth in the sense that UM has a pro Zoom account, and it was easy to set up. Students understood how to set it up pretty easily. Doing lectures online isn’t hard, necessarily, since it’s really the same info presented with a screen. I had to make some small adjustments for stuff like quizzes but otherwise, technically, I didn’t find it too difficult.”
Getting online is one thing, learning online is another
Most teachers would probably tell you that one of the most rewarding aspects of their job is engaging with students and encouraging lively classroom discussions. Online learning makes this incredibly difficult. Although Meltzer employs various methods to promote student engagement, maintaining a cohesive classroom environment still proves challenging.
“You can’t really create a conversation,” he says. “You can’t create an environment. You can’t play off the energy in the room. It’s just a bunch of people staring at screens, and you’re trying to keep them engaged. And that’s really hard.”
On making sure students are paying attention, Meltzer says, “I try to get them to ask questions and have quizzes on the material. I require their video to be on, so I know they’re not making pico de gallo or doing laundry. This particular class, they weren’t ones to overly participate in class anyway, so there’s been a lot of dead air.”
For younger students, the virtual divide is even tougher.
According to Baron, “In kindergarten so much of our learning is about interacting with each other, learning to play and share together. This is virtually impossible to do without being physically together. Not being able to see the students every day is a huge drawback. I miss them so much!”
It’s not all negative
Despite the clear inconveniences of teaching remotely, it’s not all bad for teachers. Just as students now have more flexibility to wake up late, roll out of bed, and simultaneously brush their teeth and take a pop quiz, teachers also find themselves with more freedom.
“Every day can be pajama day,” Baron joked, “and I can sleep a little bit later in the mornings.”
Indeed, for teachers who spend enough time outside the classroom grading papers and prepping lesson plans, saving precious commuting time is incredibly valuable. Meltzer similarly appreciates the time saved by foregoing the commute.
“I save an hour or two on not having to take the train to campus and back,” he said. “When I have them doing in-class writing, I can go make pico de gallo or do laundry or something else, so it has freed up some more time. You also sometimes get little glimpses into their lives, like posters on the wall in the background or people who walk by in the background to mess with them. So that’s kinda fun.”
Beyond simple convenience, online learning also has some educational upsides. Since transitioning to virtual learning, Baron says she doesn’t have to deal with behavior management in the classroom, which once took up a large portion of her time and distracted from learning objectives.
“This is a huge factor in the classroom,” she said. “During virtual learning each student is watching, listening, and learning the information and assignments on his/her own schedule. My colleagues are also coming together in a way that is above and beyond anything I’ve experienced in 18 years of teaching. Everyone is working together so well, even though we aren’t physically together.”
The future of virtual learning
Like many other aspects of post-pandemic life, education won’t exactly go back to “normal.” In other aspects of our lives, Zoom will probably play a bigger role in our social interactions. We’ll instinctively wash our hands more obsessively than we used to. And education — which had already been making big strides toward incorporating classroom technology — will likely embrace some online learning methods that proved successful.
While teachers will be relieved to get back into the classroom, and probably won’t lament the passing of the virtual-learning era, that doesn’t mean some strategies and techniques won’t carry over.
“I will absolutely use FlipGrid in my regular instruction,” Baron said. “It’s a great way to let students video themselves quickly and easily. I will also offer Zoom as a way to hold a parent-teacher conference if parents are unable to come into school to meet.”
Meltzer, however, is less eager to incorporate virtual learning into the classroom. “I might do things like Zoom conferences or Skype for guest speakers who are in different places,” he concedes, “or do it myself if I’m traveling and want to hold class anyway. I think learning that has been valuable so now I know that I can still hold class or have people come to class, even if they can’t be in Miami.”
As virtual teaching continues, the benefits and drawbacks of remote learning will become clearer. Teachers are doing their best to adapt to a difficult situation, evolve their teaching strategies, and creatively engage students. Until the whole picture comes into focus, however, the true merits of remote learning remain up for debate.