With the sudden outbreak of COVID-19 globally, educational institutions and schools rushed to find ways to continue with courses while also ensuring that each student is safe from the virus. Thankfully with the use of common video conferencing systems like Zoom and other remote-work capabilities, teachers and students were able to adjust to online learning relatively quickly.
However, it’s important to evaluate whether or not we consider these online classes to be successful. Are the majority of students proving themselves to be more successful with online learning or are they struggling to focus? Are specific grades or ages showing more improvement than others?
These are all important questions to determine if we have been underestimating the positive effects of online learning or at the very least, should be implementing more technology into our educational systems to benefit the students.
What an Online Learning Classroom Looks like Today
Online classrooms were once a convenience for those looking to pick up a new skill or language in their free time. In the last ten years, online classrooms have grown in popularity, and within the last six months they have become absolutely essential for virtually every type of learning, regardless of learning.
Today, online classrooms are equipped to instruct virtually every subject imaginable. Classrooms online have also adapted to be more engaging and helpful than ever before. The use of communication technology and cutting-edge research on what gets students to learn, has made these virtual classrooms even more accessible to distance learners.
Very few people could have anticipated what was to come in 2020. The pandemic came with especially little to no warning for students and educators in the U.S. Teachers found themselves scrambling to move an entire year’s worth of teaching materials and scheduling to online classrooms.
This was no easy feat, and many teachers are still struggling with how to best cope with the current circumstances while planning for the new school year. Learners who thrive on routine and a structured environment had to adapt at a moment’s notice to wavering schedules and little-to-no structure during the day as parents worked from home.
Yet, the reality is that online classes have become the only way many students can learn in the wake of COVID-19. While it’s true that some students — particularly young learners — were already adapted to the online teaching model, for many ESL students and primary school students, online schooling is a first.
Using tools to stay connected
Teachers have had to lean on new and emerging technologies to keep up with students’ needs in the virtual classroom setting. Fortunately, the number of programs, resources, and scheduling apps are virtually innumerable, so teachers have a ton of technology to choose from.
A few popular communication resources for many teachers have been:
- Zoom (which is now almost synonymous with quarantine)
- Google Hangouts
- Google Classroom
- Blackboard – a solid alternative to video learning
Beyond tools that make basic communication simpler, some educators have struggled with how to effectively translate the materials they built for in-person instruction, to online classroom learning. The good news is that there are dozens of organizational tools teachers and students have access to that will hopefully make life easier for everyone.
Here are a few examples of the tools available:
- Remind – a text-based reminder app that can help keep track of assignments and lesson plans
- EdPuzzle – an app that allows teachers to make custom lesson videos for engaging content
- Seesaw – connects parents, students, and teachers together to monitor students’ progress throughout the academic year
While there is no silver lining to this pandemic, we are fortunate that online learning has become much easier to navigate in the last decade, thanks to technology.
An unfortunate truth that educators are encountering during the COVID-19 pandemic is that many students don’t have access to the necessary resources to make online learning possible. Whether it’s a lack of physical technology or internet access, many teachers are scrambling to find what their students need.
Fortunately, there are some great assistance programs out there that aim to provide each and every student with the internet access, computers, tablets, or other devices they need to continue learning. One such program is the Human IT organization, a coalition of various non-profits that can provide everything from donated cell phones to low-cost to no-cost internet access to families.
Another group that aims to help students is the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. The NDIA focuses on providing internet access to students when families can’t afford to do so.
It can be heartbreaking for educators when students are denied access to learning. Fortunately, there are dozens of non-profit organizations that are looking towards the future to help every family get the tools they need.
Is it working?
An important question that teachers and parents alike need to be asking is: is this working? Is online classroom learning actually effective? Unfortunately, to date, most of the research around the effectiveness of online learning is aimed at college students. However, while early data indicates that there are certain benefits to in-person learning, research also shows that students can and do learn from virtual/remote classes.
Positives to Online learning in the Future
One benefit of online learning that isn’t often discussed is the ability for students to work at their own pace and learn what they want to learn. A student who may not be able to attend in-person language classes because a parent works late can attend them online from the comfort of their own home. Remote learning can also be effective for students who struggle with large classroom sizes and noisy environments.
This focused and efficient learning is one of the top benefits, but there are also benefits that impact the entire structure of learning. A recent study showed that online learning has an improved retention rate to the tune of up to 60 percent. In addition to that, online learning fosters better emission rates and less fossil fuel use, as students aren’t having to commute to and from physical locations to learn. This also lowers overhead for school districts who have significant costs to consider in physical teaching environments.
Finally, students are also gaining invaluable technological information as they navigate the online classroom world. They’re learning to troubleshoot software issues, fix computer problems, and how to fix network connectivity issues. There are definite benefits to committing to online learning for students and teachers. These should only improve as the scaffolding around online classroom learning grows.
Negative Effects of Online Learning
Sure, there are plenty of benefits to online learning, but it’s also important to acknowledge and continue to work on the negatives that can come with moving all learning to a virtual teaching model. A few of these threats are:
- Potential threats to teacher and professor pay
- Threat to effective communication
- Loss in profits at major universities
- Loss of culture and athletics in grade schools, high schools, and on college campuses
Perhaps the biggest loss is the ease of social development that comes with in-person learning. However, this can be overcome by increasing the resources available to students that allow them to easily communicate with one another. Students have also expressed that it’s difficult to maintain focus during such a collective, stressful experience.
Potential in the Future
Even though online learning has been around for several years now, in reality it’s still very much in its infancy. And while COVID-19 has certainly required the virtual learning model to stretch, quickly, to meet the needs of millions of students, what we’ve learned from the experience could inform how online learning continues once its no longer a requirement to practice social distancing.
Will online learning continue to benefit schools?
This is a difficult question to answer without a crystal ball. However, if the current situation is any indication, virtual learning can be adapted to fit many learners relatively quickly. Though, it’s also important to remember that no two students learn at the same pace or in the same way. It remains to be seen if the majority of students can truly do their learning entirely online for a prolonged period of time.
Potential hybrid classes
Perhaps the most promising concept for integrating online learning into everyday life is the idea of hybrid classes. These programs would consist of both in-person and online teaching to give students the best of both worlds, while simultaneously encouraging socialization and tech learning.
Remote learning for sick days
Remote learning can be applied in a variety of ways, but one very beneficial use case is sick days that could be applied to both students and educators. When mild illness strikes a student or a teacher, it’s best to stay home to keep from infecting anyone else. However, in these instances the illness might not rise to the level of complete distraction. In these cases remote learning can allow students to get the necessary information they need, and it would allow teachers to spare their sick time for true emergencies.
University remote learning
Remote learning at the college level offers some promising uses. For instance, a student may have to settle for a less-than-full, in-person schedule due to the need to commute around large campuses. Remote learning could allow university students the opportunity to commit to more class credits in a semester.
Surge in Online Classes in Universities After COVID
There is likely to be a highly-anticipated surge of online classes at universities across the globe. Remoting learning is a cost-effective model for both universities and students alike. The hope is that as the catalogue of online courses grow, students will begin to see additional financial and educational benefits. The future looks promising for remote learning everywhere, but especially at the university level.
How to Prepare and Adjust for Online Learning as a Teacher
There is no doubt that teachers have had a steep learning curve when it comes to remote education. COVID-19 required everyone to commit to an astonishing level of flexibility and few answered the call better than educators.
However, many traditional, brick-and-mortar teachers are still scrambling to prepare for the next academic year. It’s one thing to do a complete teaching plan online for a few months, it’s another thing to do it for 18 months, or longer!
There are some great support tools available to teachers like:
Learning how to become an online teacher takes time and energy. Leaning on other teachers, your district or leadership when times are tough is an essential part of emotional health and wellbeing for teachers.
Learning how to be an effective teacher online doesn’t happen overnight and it’s harder if you go it alone. The great news is that teachers by nature are adaptable, and with time and support you too can become a great, online teacher.
Marie Johnson is a tech writer for the technology magazine Enlightened Digital. She also works as a UX designer for a major tech company based out of New York. With her passion for writing and years of experience in the field of technology, she now enjoys combining the two worlds and sharing her knowledge and tips with the online tech community.