wasting bandwidth since 1999

Learning Online Ain’t Easy

Online Learning

At this point we have universities, K12 schools, and even entire school districts that have closed in the face of the COVID-19 virus, with many shifting instruction to “online”, whatever that may mean. Many others are drawing up contingency plans for shutting down.

Which is where we find our overly-large school district. Monday the kids get a holiday while schools will have “an opportunity for staff to prepare for the possibility of distance learning in the event of a school(s) closure”. But we can’t forget the important stuff: “All after-school extracurricular activities on March 16, including interscholastic contests and team practices, will proceed as scheduled.”.

Anyway, a few random thoughts on the idea of instant-on “distance learning”.1

I will be very curious to hear what kind of training teachers get for the possible switch. From lots of experience, I can tell you that teaching in an online environment is not an easy one-to-one match with a live classroom.

Of course, it all depends on what you expect from the learning process. Things are much easier if the only goal is delivery of information, providing specific assignments for students to complete, and testing them to make sure they recall it at a minimum level.

It’s much harder if you actually want to create a community for your classroom. One in which students interact with each other as well as the teacher, and where some of the best learning occurs when the plans go off the rails. Spotting when a lesson isn’t working and making adjustments is difficult in the asynchronous environment of online courses.

Then there’s the matter of training. Most teachers have little to no experience working with students in a completely online classroom. One day of planning and practice will certainly not be enough to make a smooth “switch”, so I’m wondering what kind of support they can expect while isolated in their homes.

But students will also need to learn how to work in an online environment. Don’t you dare bring up the whole “digital natives” myth or tell me that kids are always on their phones so they’ll be fine. They understand how to communicate with their friends on chat and TikTok. Some are very good at producing videos for YouTube. That won’t make them good at the kind of academic learning schools expect from them.

Ok, so now we get down to the issue of equity. As a colleague who works in a very rural area of Southwest Virginia post on Twitter…

Screen Shot 2020 03 11 at 4 16 05 PM

Even here in the very rich suburbs of Northern Virginia, many students do not have broadband or access to computers at home, especially if several siblings have to share equipment. Smartphones are great but not necessarily for what the lesson calls for.

Equity when it comes to all students having access to the learning resources they need has always been a problem, and it only gets worse when you move everything online.

Although I could also bring up those students who require special focus in the real world, very young children who have trouble just logging into their school accounts, and those at all grade levels who don’t care about learning when they are in the physical classroom, that’s enough ranting for now.

In all this I’m not saying that schools shouldn’t make the best effort possible to provide school for kids when they are forced to stay home because of an emergency situation. But, like confronting the pandemic itself, things would be much better if we spent far more time confronting these issues beforehand, rather than just reacting when something happens.

More to come.


The image was taken in London, England and posted to the STML Flickr account, and is used under a Creative Commons license. As the caption reads, “We’re going to need a bigger bus.”

1. At least this is a topic where I’ve had some experience. It doesn’t mean any of this is accurate or even coherent.

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1 Comment

  1. Karen Richardson

    We have been cavalier about Internet access, brushing aside inequities by suggesting kids could go to the library or a local restaurant especially since it was such a seemingly small number who didn’t have access. What we know is that the maps of broadband access are basically wrong: they show areas of access but not who is actually connected and how they are connecting. Perhaps funding for school maintenance and utilities that won’t be needed in a shut down can be diverted to mifi devices and/or satellite access for faculty, staff and students who are not currently connected?

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