There is a knot in many peoples’ stomachs when the issue of distance learning during pandemic times is discussed. What about socialization? Kids need to be with each other. What about equity? Some students do not have access to devices or reliable internet. What about sports? Sports is not part of the equation. What about parents who have to go to work? Who will take care of the children at home? What if parents do not understand the material? How can they teach their children? Education is more than just academics. Where will students learn all the other important stuff that go beyond the books?
These are very valid points. My aim today is to unravel the ball of confusion about distance learning during these pandemic times.
What is distance learning? There is a misconception that distance learning is simply spending time in front of a screen. That it is no different from having the students answer worksheets in the classroom, except that it is done online. This is not the case. There are many valuable tools for learning. Apps like IXL and Achieve target a child’s ability. If your child is struggling at a certain level, they will adjust the difficulty of problems given. There will be short lessons along the way to help your child understand the topic.
This is the beauty of algorithm kicking in. There are many fascinating videos that go along with lessons in such apps as Nearpod and fun games such as in Kahoot. There are plenty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) projects available to teachers and students.
Distance learning does not have to be about spending time in front of the screen for hours. A creative and conscientious teacher can design learning that is interesting, engaging and challenges a student to go beyond his or her device. For example, solve a problem in your neighborhood, take a poll, build a roller coaster, interview a homeless person. Then create a video about your findings. Share it in class or to a specified community.
Distance learning is less about the use of technology as preparing children for the future. A good teacher can teach with stones and sticks under a tree. But why? Will that prepare students for a future that will involve artificial intelligence, machine learning and for jobs that do not yet exist?
Home learning will require parental involvement at a level we have not known in a long time. This is a double-edged sword. In the mainland where online learning was implemented when the pandemic started, parents have been involved in their children’s learning like never before in their lives. This is a good thing. It was difficult, yes. But it provided valuable time together with their children. There was more bonding and closeness. They learned to appreciate what teachers do daily.
There will be a huge learning curve for everyone involved. This is a big part of the resistance to distance learning. Parents and teachers who were not used to using video conferencing are now forced to learn it. If the adults do not at least make an effort to learn distance learning tools — the hardware and the software — how will they lead the children to embrace it? Children are actually online and navigating the worldwide web without us. Even my students who could not bring a pencil to school could tell me about the coolest music videos online.
I took on the Robotics Club in my school last year. It was a painful experience — one of the hardest things I have ever done as a teacher. At first, I was just a small step ahead of my students. After a certain point, they overtook me and started teaching me and each other. My role was not even to guide the learning. They learned on their own. My role was to teach persistence. I had to inspire them not to give up, stay with the problem and use the mistakes as springboard to a better design.
The parent or teacher, who is afraid of learning new technology, needs to learn just enough to get started. There will be a tipping point at which time the students will take over and, if you are willing, take you farther than you can go on your own.
What about the social interactions? I was concerned about this too because I do a lot of cooperative learning. Zoom has a feature called breakout rooms. A teacher can assign a small group of students to a breakout room, where they can discuss an assignment together. A teacher can pop in and out of the different breakout rooms. Then when the time is up, the whole group can come back together.
What about the challenge of managing attention online? The issues that might come up online are the same issues that show up in face-to-face classroom. Teachers need to keep their students’ attention whether you teach online or in the actual classroom.
Ideally, we should have been moving closer to online learning before the pandemic started. We should have, as a community, addressed the equity issues — reliable internet service for students and devices that are uploaded with learning apps and ebooks. Teachers trained to do distance education.
But now that the pandemic is upon us, our hand is forced. This is a silver lining. If we cross this digital divide and then a cure or vaccine for Covid-19 becomes available, then we will be set up beautifully for a hybrid form of learning — both online and face to face.
Much of the resistance to distance learning comes from a misunderstanding of what it is. It also comes from wrongfully pinning the effects of the pandemic to distance learning. Covid-19, not distance learning, is the reason we cannot have face-to-face learning. We need to distinguish the two. Our hand is forced to implement distance learning because of Covid-19. Even if Covid-19 did not happen, combining distance learning with face-to-face learning would still be a good scheme.
For some students, the school is the only safe place to be because their homes are not safe. This is the most painful part of home learning. We need to address this as a community. This is a matter that needs to be resolved by the government, churches and organizations, not just schools. Another difficult issue is special needs students. Younger students — kindergarten to second grade are most in need of face-to-face interaction with adults and concrete objects. But again, these issues are now exacerbated not because of distance learning but because of Covid-19.
Distance learning can be a powerful educational tool for most students at such a time like this. Actually, we have no other choice. That we have no choice but distance learning is caused by Covid-19, not by distance learning. Let’s just unravel that ball of confusion right now.
Jeni Ann Flores is a cool teacher - a robotics coach, aspiring drone operator and wanna-be writer. You may read more of her writing at https://teacherseditionflores.blogspot.com/ or tell her what you think through firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook and LinkedIn.