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The Complications of Virtual Learning | SignalWire

The Complications of Virtual Learning

Love it or hate it, virtual learning has become such a huge part of 2020 that it may very well outlast the coronavirus pandemic that made it a necessity to begin with. Students, teachers, and parents all have their own opinions about it – and just as working from home has its supporters and detractors, learning from home seems to be even more polarizing. There are so many factors to consider when trying to determine how well it works: how old are the students? How technologically literate are the teachers? Are the students in a home situation that allows them to have all the materials and resources they need to thrive?

Schools vary in their rules for students who are stuck at home. For as long as 6 hours, a student may have to sit in front of a webcam to video conference while not being allowed to turn off the camera until lunchtime, eat on screen, or even wear pajamas. Those are stricter rules than most of us working from home have ever had to deal with. Schools with these types of structures are viciously trying to mimic the exact classroom setup that existed pre-coronavirus to keep students on a tight routine. Other schools are much more lenient. Students might show up in Zoom calls in spurts throughout the day, with no requirements to turn on their cameras. Younger students, especially, find a lot of stress having to be on camera for 6 hours a day. Attitudes around virtual learning can vary immensely based on how the classroom is structured alone.

And there’s a ton of variation in the needs of students. Something as simple as age can entirely determine how well students and parents like learning from home – it can be so much harder to get a six year old to focus on virtual learning than a typical high school student. That’s not even considering that there are also teachers who focus on special needs children, where in-person learning can be especially critical. Not to mention glaring economic differences that can exist in one school or even one classroom. Some districts have a disproportionate amount of economically disadvantaged students. This can mean both parents having to work, while not having the option of working from home, and what are small children supposed to do when they need an adult with them when they’re learning?

Meanwhile, in more affluent suburban communities, parents have resources to do things like hire tutors for their children at rates as much as $70 an hour. The demand for tutoring services and babysitters alike is off the charts. Educators fear that a lack of funding mixed with a lack of parental involvement can gravely be exacerbated by remote learning plans, putting many students behind. Schools that can afford it provide laptops and wifi hotspots to students, but educators across the board are begging political representatives to allocate funds for virtual learning resources.

Many schools have gone back to in-person learning this fall, as educators and parents alike have been eager to get students back in the classroom for these reasons. Some schools have gone back and forth, offering in-person learning and then having to shut down due to an outbreak. Some schools are split, where parents can choose to either send their children back to the classroom, or keep them home for their health and safety, resulting in a hybrid classroom for teachers who now have to deal with both in-person and online students. And all kinds of full-time virtual schools have gotten a boost – there are public, state or district run schools, and private or charter schools available for families who want to keep their kids at home.

Blended learning opportunities have also increased in their popularity this year. These are virtual schools that also incorporate face-to-face opportunities, and the amount of time spent in-person varies by school and curriculum. Their strategies are built around students’ diverse learning styles and allow them to work before or after typical school hours in ways that aren’t usually possible with a conventional classroom structure. Students can use this kind of online learning to improve productivity and accelerate their learning outside of school hours, helping teachers to make better use of their time. Some of these public options even offer free computers to students who need them, which is excellent news for more economically disadvantaged students who want to catch up.

And we can’t forget about how stressful the situation can be for teachers, too. Educators have been sharpening their tech skills to get up to speed in a working-from-home environment to best help their students. The range of tech skills that can exist in just one district or school building is incredible – people of different technology comfort levels have all been thrown into the same situation. Many districts have been, before the pandemic even began, trying to introduce more online learning tools. Some have been difficult to get stubborn people to use, and now, everyone is being forced to learn them regardless. More professional development courses are being offered to teachers to help them learn the skills they need. It’s the perfect opportunity for districts’ technology-adaption timelines to accelerate.

Having to build a virtual classroom means it’s also been a booming time for virtual learning tools. We all think of Zoom and video conferencing when we think of any kind of working, learning, or meeting from home – but tons of tools are needed when it comes to remote schooling, as it’s so much more than just a series of virtual lectures or meetings. Teachers have so many options now when it comes to engaging parents and students alike: texting tools that send reminders to students and parents, screencasting and video recording tools, portals to submit assignments and post grades, student progress tracking tools, content management tools, virtual lesson planners, online classroom discussion platforms, collaboration tools, website building platforms, slideshow builders. Any online classroom is using at least several of these kinds of resources that everyone has had to learn how to use and master.

Oddly enough, this isn’t the first time distance learning has been adapted, either. In the 1930’s, during a polio epidemic in the U.S. that shut down some schools, districts had a different version of learning from home: lessons over radio. This didn’t really stick, of course, with many teachers simply picking up where they left off when classes returned to the schoolroom. Today, there are improvements in engagement between teachers and students, as well as their parents – more frequent check-ins, breaking work down into smaller steps, and honing in on more challenging topics. And students’ problem-solving abilities are being put to the test, forcing them to be more independent without having a teacher available to them constantly. Regardless of if learning from home sticks this time around or not, those are skills that will certainly outlive the pandemic.