[Editor’s note: Today’s blog was written by Jane Miller, a freelance writer, part-time high school English teacher, and a graduate student based in Seattle, Washington.]
In the roughly six months since the coronavirus pandemic struck the U.S. in earnest, virtual learning has developed something of a mixed reputation. In those six months, students of all ages have had to transition to new ways of schooling. But there’s ongoing debate about just how effective virtual classrooms can be.
On the one hand, there have been some troubling surveys indicating that students aren’t learning as much, or that they’re having trouble focusing. This has led to a little bit of a narrative developing that remote education may, in some cases, be hindering development and setting our students back. At the same time however, there are some unexpected benefits to virtual learning that are becoming apparent the farther we get into this situation. We’re going to focus on some of those benefits in this piece, as well as how students, families, and teachers alike can take advantage of them and make the most of the present circumstances.
The Home Environment Can Help
Particularly where younger students are concerned, one unexpected benefit of virtual learning is that kids are able to take advantage of their home environments in creative ways. This is something we touched on in the post “Instruction in the Time of the Pandemic: Parental Involvement.” There, we referred to the benefit of a home environment as the possibility for “organic learning” that can’t always happen in the classroom.
By this we mean things like kids helping to plan family meals, then setting up “grocery stores” and learning math (and how to manage money) by shopping for the meal ingredients through them. Similarly, there can be a social component to the home environment, if and when parents are available to take an active role in emotional education alongside the academic. Whatever the specifics, it’s clear that a home can be turned into a dynamic learning environment for a younger student.
There’s Incentive for Creativity
Early in the pandemic, HP suggested some tips for communicating online for teachers and students, and included the idea that teachers should “promote engagement with creative classwork.” This is an interesting notion that hasn’t gotten enough attention, and it speaks to another benefit of virtual learning: It might actually incentivize more creativity in lessons.
The idea is essentially that it can be even harder for teachers to hold students’ attention virtually than it can be in the classroom. Accordingly, it’s necessary for teachers to find new ways to engage their classes. This can be done by grounding lessons in current events, finding new ways for students to participate actively in lessons, or any number of other methods. That makes it likely we’ll see approaches to lessons that are both creative and effective.
Remote Learning Teaches Tech Skills
There’s something to be said for the crash course many students are getting in technology while they’re out of the brick-and-mortar classrooms. Particularly where older students are concerned, the transition to virtual education can mean learning how modern file-sharing services work, how best to navigate video chat and communication software, how to record audio responses and save data on cloud systems, and more. Granted, these are the kinds of things many kids are growing up with these days. But the fact remains that virtual education today can provide hands-on experience with technologies that will prove valuable in students’ higher education and professional life.
Students Are Becoming More Independent and Accountable
In a more general sense, virtual learning is also teaching students of all ages to manage their own learning independently, and to hold themselves accountable. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t lapses, or that some students won’t struggle to participate remotely. The current conditions will be challenging for many. But the opportunity is there for students to grow quite rapidly in these areas. Learning to be more independent and accountable when it comes to education will prepare students for the lives they have ahead of them in a way no subject or in-class lesson quite can.
All of these are potential benefits of virtual learning that some are already realizing and others will in time. That said, students, teachers, and families also have to make a conscious effort if they’re to take advantage of these ideas. This means day-to-day diligence, but it also involves two specific efforts.
First, teachers and parents need to dedicate themselves to teaching relevant technologies in order to make virtual learning as smooth as possible. As McGraw Hill’s piece on effective digital learning pointed out, “you can’t assume students are tech savvy just because they are digital natives.” We noted above that students today grow up learning how to use technology, and this is true. But it doesn’t mean teachers and parents should simply assume that systems and tools for virtual learning are all self-explanatory. Teaching these technologies, and working through them together, will lay a foundation for all other benefits of virtual learning.
The second effort is essentially creativity! We covered the idea above, but it doesn’t come automatically. Teachers and parents still need to make a deliberate, everyday effort to keep lessons interesting and present students with an engaging approach. In looking at some of the online tools that can help with virtual learning, USA Today said that we’re “turning kids into zombies” by “doing it all wrong” on the remote education front. This is a bit of a dramatic, tongue-in-cheek statement, but it does describe what happens if there’s not clear effort regarding creativity. Without coming up with inventive and fun ways to present virtual lessons, teachers will see students “zone out” — and all of the benefits discussed above will be lost.
In other words, all of this takes hard work, on the parts of the teachers, the parents, and the students! Done properly though, it’s clear that virtual learning offers a lot of value to students, both in their classes and beyond.