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Where I live behind the Orange curtain in Southern California, the sudden leap to virtual classroom teaching and learning makes rational sense during this period of growing coronavirus infections.
No matter our comfort level with the online world, nothing will ever replace one-on-one teaching and learning from instructor to student, whether for children or adults. The ability of teachers and students alike to adapt to changing learning formats, however, is crucial in keeping the American education system responsive in these times of emergency.
Of course, one can learn effectively both online and in person, and both forms of instruction are deemed acceptable by accreditation experts. Which is more enjoyable is a matter of personal preference and learning style, as well as campus policy.
Make no mistake about it: This pandemic has only deepened the impact of digital education. There is no turning back now.
I remember walking both of my sons to the physical classroom, my hand in theirs. Once, while volunteering in a first-grade classroom, I even accidentally kissed the wrong boy because the back of his head looked like my son’s. Seeing to the fact that social interaction is inextricable from a traditional education, I, like most parents, am at a crossroads. I resolved to give my 16-year-old son the choice between a semi-traditional classroom experience and one completely digital; he chose online school in light of recent spikes of COVID-19.
I learned from Eleanor Duckworth at Harvard Graduate School of Education in the mid-1990s, and her message was absolutely clear: The ideal student-teacher ratio is always one-to-one. Still, online learning promises better focus on the individual student through tailored homework plans and Zoom calls.
It is a tough prescription to swallow that everything must be accomplished six feet apart at a social distance. But the difficulty in switching to online learning for those classroom teachers used to on-site, in-person teaching is nothing more than a temporary psychological shift.
Online teaching can be challenging for both students and teachers. As a former high school teacher, I know preparation using tools and tricks aimed at keeping students engaged is much more challenging and diverse when it comes to online work. Yet, it is worth the extra prep work.
Now we must stop all activities that involve being near others. No parties. Sports games. Eating out. Shopping at the mall. There are limits on travel. Getting a haircut is supposed to be a risky act tantamount to being a soldier at war.
But we still can read, write and create stories as well as communicate online. I know online education may seem an awful imposition on parents of younger children particularly – bloodless and breathless, as well as overly sedentary. You can’t even hold your students’ hands as a primary school teacher.
We know variety is crucial when it comes to learning experiences, and it is unhealthy whenever any kid is glued to their computer screen or console and not spending enough time exercising outside. Yet, we know it is chiefly the parents’ role to manage their children’s schedules, and online education should not be blamed when a parent fails to make sure their child gets enough time away from screens.
Parents have been assisting with homework for many years, and students can sometimes get more help and attention at home from those who know their needs best. The requirement that parents actually get involved in the learning process for hours at a time can feel uncomfortable, but it is proven better for learning. This is not to detract from the role of the educator but simply to observe the numerous resources that students will have no matter the learning format.
We all need to heed the lessons of this coronavirus period and make the acceptance of online education a permanent condition. We need to accept that online learning is here to stay, and start taking advantage of its most positive points.
Of course, nothing replaces a real instructor sitting before a breathing, living class of students. For my sons’ sakes, I hope they will get to experience the best of what higher education has to offer. At the same time, the online world is vast and can take them much further with the help of a good instructor determined to offer the best possible learning environment and experience he or she can.
Writing workshops still are best with real time, synchronous online classes, and students must take the risk of reading what they have written aloud to their classmates. Teachers should allow for this in real time because of the experience it affords students for free exchange of discussion and ideas. Science labs also require synchronous learning.
Yet, when it comes to imparting information, there are many ways being schooled online right now is preferable.
We all need to heed the lessons of this coronavirus period to make online education a permanent reality, not just a novel experiment.
Sara-Ellen Amster, Ph.D., has taught graduate and undergraduate digital journalism and communication classes online for National University from her office in Costa Mesa for the last 15 years.