Starting around March 2020, schools throughout the U.S. suddenly found themselves immersed in distance learning. Write an essay in three parts telling what this was like first from a student’s point of view, second from a teacher’s point of view, and finally from a parental point of view. Feel free to use your imagination and to insert humor.—Prompts for Young Writers
The 2019-2020 academic year started in a relatively unremarkable manner for most teachers, administrators, students, and parents. As I had done in the previous year of substituting, I collected gleanings from some of my favorite experiences so I could end the school year with a post about them
But, then suddenly, in mid-March, the schools closed due to Covid 19 and classes went online. No longer an active participant in schools, I became an interested observer instead.
Harder Than It Looks
Through Kelly Educational Staffing, my employer when I work as a sub, I was able to take a free professional development class on “How To Teach Online For The Classroom Teacher.” Like good writing, the best of online teaching looks far easier than it actually is.
Teachers need to do online all the things they would in a face-to-face classroom. They need to create schedules, lesson plans, and filing systems, as well as storage for themselves and their students. They need to communicate with students and parents, as well as their colleagues. At the heart of their job are the delivery of instruction and assessment of student progress, which are key elements of their relationships with their students.
One of the first decisions that has to be made when transitioning to a virtual environment is whether or not to use a learning management system and, if so, which one. Wikipedia defines a learning management system as “a software application for the administration, documentation, tracking and reporting, and delivery of educational courses.” A learning management system typically provides a framework and tools for everything teachers need to do.
Often it is administrators who make decisions about learning management systems, especially if an entire school uses the same system. Perhaps the best known of these is G-Suite for Education, which is a Google product. Not surprisingly, many learning management systems saw significant upticks in usage as education went online.
Options for delivering content are numerous. Teachers can present information in a Zoom- or webinar-type format. They can allow students to collaborate through online pairs or groups, which can be monitored by the teacher. They can present videos. The class I took mentioned one source that I had seen in use in a classroom before the pandemic. It was TED-Ed, from the same family as TED Talks, and what I saw was a series of videos about verbal, situational, and dramatic irony.
Teachers can also present hybrid lessons that involve both online and real-life elements. For example, students may receive an online assignment for a real-world scavenger hunt or simple science experiment.
Options for assessments are also numerous. One school where I substituted had made major investments in their textbooks, which came with several classroom aids in the form of videos and the like, as well as tests that could be generated automatically. Various websites are able to create pop quizzes that actually pop up, self-graded quizzes, and game-like assessments. Of course, educational platforms can also grade assessments and enter the grades into spreadsheets.
Seemingly Endless Options
A nearly overwhelming array of possibilities seems to be available for performing the various functions involved in online education. In addition to those mentioned above, a partial list of resources mentioned in my class includes the following:
https://onlineteaching.open.suny.edu for everything from general guidance to lesson plans
https://nearpod.com for lessons and other resources
https://www.goosechase.com for collaborative assessments and organizing research
https://trello.com/en-US for organization and grade books
I was lucky to have the luxury of time when I took my class, not for immediate implementation, but for general enlightenment. I can only imagine the magnitude of challenges faced by teachers, administrators, students and parents when classrooms that were full at one class meeting switched abruptly to distance learning the next time the teachers and students were together.
Not only did the teachers and administrators have to quickly weigh important choices about how to make the transition, but every new website, platform or application, chosen came with its own learning curve. And, even parents were involved with the schools’ technology as they needed to at least keep track of their children’s passwords and schedules.
Technology was a significant frustration for some. For example, a special education teacher I know had to interact with students and their classroom teachers in five grades on the various platforms chosen by each of the teachers. After months of online teaching, she ended the academic year “at the school handing out all of the kids’ belongings that were left in the classrooms because we left so suddenly.”
Another teacher, who’s a bit of a technophobe, needed to figure out how to quickly upgrade her outdated computer during the pandemic. She definitely needed tech support.
She was also concerned about her students, many of whom may not have had ready access to technology at home and whose digital skills may have been severely limited. The digital divide and homework gap continue to be real problems recognized by the Pew Research Center and other sources.
An Austin, Texas, school district identified many locations that lacked Internet access. The district provided Google Chromebooks to the students who didn’t already have them and deployed more than 100 internet-equipped buses to strategic locations. The buses enabled students to have wireless connections from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays, but only devices issued through the district, not personal devices, could connect.
A music teacher expressed the frustrations of many by composing a ukulele song, which can be seen here https://www.classicfm.com/music-news/coronavirus/music-teacher-ukulele-scream-tik-tok-video/. (Spoiler alert: the song is short on soothing lyrics.)
On the other end of the spectrum, physics teacher Mariam Nouri was already teaching in a city located more than 300 miles from where her students were. Before the pandemic, the students were in a single classroom with an adult present. The biggest change for this physics teacher during the pandemic was that students were dispersed to their homes instead of being in a single classroom.
At the end of the school year, she reported the following:
My experience as a teacher shifted a lot during the pandemic. My class had become the social center of the school where kids could have social interactions with each other. Physics became less relevant and keeping some normalcy in their lives became more the focus of the class. We finished the year with a party and a trivia game. It was supposed to be an hour. I could not get rid of the kids after two. They just know this is their last chance to be together and they did not want it to end. They invited me to their next year’s prom and graduation. I have not met any of them in flesh but I miss them so much.
Mariam offered to share some of her favorite resources, including the following:
https://phet.colorado.edu/, Phet simulations (Science labs and math simulations)
https://www.duolingo.com/learn, Duolingo (For learning languages)
https://classroomscreen.com/, Classroom screen (Management screen for activities, time, picking random student, rolling dice, etc.)
https://www.desmos.com/, Desmos (A versatile online graphing calculator that’s great for functions, graphing, graphical solutions, geometry, etc.
https://pixabay.com/, Pixabay (For royalty free stock images and videos (I would be lost without this. I have made the most fun background images and background videos. I also use it constantly for adding visuals to clarify examples.))
https://pixlr.com/, Pixlr (For photo editing)
The course I took cautioned against the use of You Tube and any videos with ads, but a friend posted the stellar videos of her son’s science lectures. Mr. Johnson’s lectures can be seen here:
A Comic Perspective
Comedian Jim Gaffigan updated viewers of CBS Sunday Morning about how things were going at the New York City apartment he shares with his wife and their five school-age children. In the April 11 episode, titled “Lessons from ‘distance learning,’” he said, “For students, they get to go to school but don’t get to be with their friends. For teachers, they get to teach but only to a screen. And, for parents, we get to fail at tech support and class monitor.” The episode can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJJZ0P7Avi8
In addition to taking the course mentioned above, I also had the opportunity to submit prompts, including the one at the start of this post, to a book compiled by Colorado Authors’ League. Barb Lundy had the idea for the book after she saw how exhausted her daughter-in-law, a teacher and mother of two, was.
Prompts for Young Writers will be available online when it comes out over the summer. It will take longer to learn about all of the impacts that this sudden experiment in distance learning has on education in general.
Barb Lundy is a poet, mystery writer and public relations professional. She reviewed this post mainly for content and she suggested that I change from my original head, which was “Real World Learning In a Virtual Classroom.”
If you have a writing or editing project and you’d like help with it, I’d love the hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org
UPDATE: In July Mariam Nouri sent a link to a blog about an online conference she had attended. Information is most applicable to science, but it’s also helpful in other areas of online teaching. The conference was presented by PocketLab.