By now, you probably have a sense of online learning. You’ve experienced the occasional connectivity issues, the classmates who can’t seem to find the mute button, and the adorable but distracting pets. Maybe you’ve spent some time wondering if the person talking is in fact wearing pants, and you’ve laughed at the inevitable video conferencing fails that have gone viral. But I want to remind you of some of the benefits that can come with the switch to an online learning environment, particularly when the teachers and students all take a minute to think about how we can do it well.
Obviously, the reason we are taking these extraordinary measures in the first place is to maintain our social distancing. Traditional classrooms would put us all in danger during the COVID-19 outbreak, and we can be thankful that modern technology allows for learning to continue. [More perspective on SAT exams and prep in the midst of all this]
Sometimes you have to miss a class, whether due to illness or some other conflict. With in-person classes, you don’t have great options to recover those lost lessons. You can ask another student for their notes, but their notes will be designed to help them remember material from class, not teach that material to someone who wasn’t there. And attending a makeup class can be tricky, if not impossible.
In an online format, though, classes can be recorded. You can watch the playback of the entire class later. Though you can’t participate in real-time, you can receive as close to the full benefit of class as possible. (And I’m sure any teacher would be happy to field a student’s questions after they’ve watched the recordings. We’re sure happy to!) The playbacks are also valuable for students who attended the class live, as it allows them to pause, rewind, and really let a challenging idea sink in. Imagine if we could freeze our teachers in real life to process what they’ve just said before they continued! Well, this is pretty close.
I do have one caveat about recordings, though: They do not take the place of good notes. You might be tempted to just lean back and listen passively, knowing that you can always re-watch later. But you know, deep down, that you won’t always do that, and further, you’re not taking full advantage of the time you’re spending in class! Active listening (with a pen or pencil in hand, taking notes and asking questions) is central to getting the most out of each class, and it will save you the time you’d have to spend later reviewing what you could have learned the first time around. So use the recordings as a failsafe, not as your primary way of retaining information.
Text-based Class Communications
While everyone’s devices have microphones, we have found that the easiest way for students to communicate in a virtual classroom is for them to type into a chat box. This approach allows students to communicate more precisely, and it ensures that everyone can understand the question. Plus, since many students share the same questions, but some are shy about asking them, this process can dramatically enhance the learning in our classes by making sure that everyone understands both the question and the answer.
While most text-based communications happen in the “everyone” chat box, students are able to privately message the instructor in a separate chat as well. This direct line of communication to the teacher can allow students who feel self-conscious about their question to ask it privately. In a physical classroom, this option simply isn’t available.
No Travel Required
Even when you live close to wherever your classes are being held, you still need to leave extra time to get yourself ready, pack up, drive, park, and walk to the classroom. And snowstorms, flash flooding, and other nasty weather can make even a quick trip just impossible. Getting to an online class is much simpler and less vulnerable to inclement weather. Also, you’ll never be late due to unexpected traffic.
Just remember that you’re still going to be in a class, though, so gather all of your materials ahead of time, organize your learning space, and consider changing out of your pajamas. I’m sure you’ve heard the advice for giving a presentation that getting dressed up gives you more confidence. Similarly, take a few minutes before an online class to set up both your space and your appearance. Even if nobody else will see you, looking and feeling prepared will prime you to participate in the serious work of learning.
There Are Still Challenges, Though
Certainly, online classes will not always match or exceed the experience of an in-person class. Siblings, parents, and pets may not always respect that you’re in a class when you’re also just sitting on the couch in the living room. Even when you’re left alone, it’s easy to give in to temptation and fire up TikTok or some other distraction. Knowing this, we all have to be extra attentive to how we arrange our learning spaces and how we treat out class time so that we stay respectful of each other and our own education.
Learn your own limits and strengths in this new environment, and adjust accordingly. I personally struggle to bring the same energy to my instruction if I’m sitting in front of a screen instead of standing up and moving about. Because I know this about myself, I’ve set up my virtual teaching space with a standing desk so I can make sure to be as on top of my game as I am when teaching in person.
As long as we are all mindful of the potential pitfalls, we can avoid the worst of them while still taking advantage of all the real benefits online classes offer. We’re in this new reality together, and together, with a little care and thoughtfulness, we can make it work wonderfully.