Virtual Learning Day Review

After a glorious Labor Day weekend and a scenic drive, my school opted to hold a virtual learning rehearsal day, intoning the usual incantation of “out of an abundance of caution” due to the possibility of holiday-related viral spread.  The decision to do a day of virtual learning also came with the insistent emphasis that we are not planning on going to virtual or distance learning on a long-term basis, but merely wanted to practice in order to prepare for the worst.

Thank goodness!  While I very much appreciated the more relaxed pace of the day—and by extension the cancellation of Back-to-School Night—I was also reminded of the shortcomings of distance learning.

A year ago, I was a champion of distance learning.  I still think that in history and social studies, it can be fairly efficient for basic content delivery:  here is what happened; here is when it happened; here is why it is important that it happened.  The semester we went to distance learning—Spring 2020—I was completely burned out at work, and was dealing with a section of AP US History that was too inquisitive, to the point that the class was getting bogged down in side questions and, at times, moralistic preening.  Distance learning offered a great deal of freedom from the multitude of distractions in the classroom, and allowed for a pure focus on content delivery.

Looking back on it now, distance learning only seemed preferable to me at the time because of my specific situation.  I think that I did distance learning well—my students seemed to think so—and I welcomed the opportunity to try something different, but also something I’d been doing for years at the local technical college where I adjunct.

Yesterday’s day of distance learning reminded me of the many downsides to the platform.  To be clear, the day went well, and my Music classes in particular were quite enjoyable.  Objectively, though, the day highlighted some of the problems with distance learning.

For one, there is the extended pre-class preparation.  Admittedly, I did not have to do much, but I’ve found the best way to maximize student attendance is to send invitations via Google Meet to each student on the roster, rather than waiting for students to come rolling in via the Google Meet link in Google Classroom.  Still, there is always a straggler or two—just like when teaching in a classroom—that ends up signing in well past the start of class, and usually the moment after I’ve sent my attendance e-mail to the registrar.

That’s a minor complaint compared to the big downside:  the lack of satisfying interaction with students.  As I noted, my Music classes were the exception to this rule:  they were engaged and active, for the most part, during our assignment intro, and even as they worked on our planned activity for class.

My history classes—two sections of Honors US History, and one of Economics—were less thrilling.  The students were fine, and it was nice to have a reprieve from constant requests to use the bathroom, but it very much felt like I was talking to a brick wall.  Granted, that’s a fairly normal sensation when teaching history and economics, but the sensation was enhanced, as I was sitting alone (with Murphy) in my house, rattling off factoids about Bacon’s Rebellion and slavery in the the colonies in the seventeenth century and comparative advantage to seemingly no one.

That’s never really bothered me before, but I think that’s because during the early days of distance learning, I was just thankful for less interaction.  This year, my history classes are quite pleasant, and while not every student is leaping from his or her desk ready to participate in discussion, many of them are engaged and focused.  Something of that engagement was lost behind the screen.

To be fair, my approach to my history and Econ lessons yesterday likely fueled that sense of disconnection.  My goal was to slam through some miscellaneous, end-of-unit notes in US History, which took me about thirty-five minutes in each class (after twenty minutes, we are allowed to set the kids loose when we’re virtual), so I was firing off information in the most perfunctory way possible.  In my defense, trying to get a discussion going about King Phillip’s War is hard enough in class, and extremely difficult when everyone is hiding anonymously behind a Google avatar, so I wasn’t attempting any kind of cursory discussion or review, but I was also just hammering out information as quickly as possible.

In Economics, I had even less material to cover in a similar “finish-out-the-unit-so-we-can-take-a-quiz-on-Thursday” mode.  We’ll likely review that information tomorrow, though, as pat of quiz preparation.

So, in the final estimation, perhaps I am the problem, not the format.  However, the inherent aloofness of distance learning certainly makes for real engagement with students much more difficult.

On the positive side, it was nice easing back into work after the long weekend, and as I had a very full load of classes today, it was particularly useful to have slightly shorter class sessions.  I was able to get several other school-related items completed, such as putting together the aforementioned Economics quiz (and study guide!) for Thursday.  I was also able to put together a small assignment for Middle School Music students about the instruments in the orchestra, which they spent part of their class time working on today.

All in all, it was a good day, but I am thankful for classroom interactions with students, and not being stuck behind a screen all day (just, y’know, the vast majority of the day).


36 thoughts on “Virtual Learning Day Review

  1. ‘The decision to do a day of virtual learning also came with the insistent emphasis that we are not planning on going to virtual or distance learning on a long-term basis, but merely wanted to practice in order to prepare for the worst.’

    In our country, that would most likely mean ‘we are planning for virtual learning on a long term basis so get used to it.’

    Unsurprisingly, I’m against virtual learning. You can’t discuss or debate with virtual learning as you can in a classroom. It’s not engaging, it’s massively limited and there’s something too remote about it. I’ll go into more detail about that when I return – car and paint will be the order of the afternoon. All I’ll say for now is when I was teaching, I liked the reciprocal energy in the classroom, something you could never replicate virtually.

    Thanks for the article, PP.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agreed. The back-and-forth between students and teacher is a huge part of what makes classroom teaching and learning engaging. With the exception of my music classes yesterday, I could FEEL the disconnection. I asked my morning US History class some basic questions about what we covered yesterday online, and none of them uttered a peep. Anecdotal evidence, for sure, but it shows you how little virtual learning is worth.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Just got back. Blooming heck, it’s hot outside! 25 degrees celsius but it feels hotter – I’m sweating like Joe Biden in a kindergarten! 🙂

        I should add that not only is virtual learning not the best experience, for reciprocal learning, but it can also be quite dangerous. No one is meant to stare at a screen for hours on end and common advice tells you that you should get up every so often to stretch your legs. I’m not saying you’re going to get DVT from online learning – that would be a bit extreme – but it’s not going to do your body or brain much good sitting on your backside and staring at a screen for hours on end. I can talk! As a gamer, when something new comes out, I can be found, of an evening, plonked on the sofa, gazing at the screen for hours but I’m an adult and can make that choice. If I get up after hours, blurry eyed and weak legged, that’s my own stupid fault! 🙂 🙂 🙂

        Liked by 3 people

      • ROFL! “I’m sweating like Joe Biden in a kindergarten!” Classic! I’m guffawing over here.

        I hear you—I spend most of my day at work and at home staring at a screen. It starts to wear on the old peepers after awhile. I’ve also done those extended gaming sessions before, and you’re right—you come away from them foggy, bleary-eyed, and a bit creaky. I’m hoping to get in a nice session of Civilization VI this evening, in fact, to try to finish up the game I started a couple of weeks ago.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, and yes—I imagine the insistent pleading that we are NOT going to virtual learning on a long-term basis is almost certainly a case of “methinks thou dost protest too much.” At the same time, I’m cautiously optimistic that the current wave will sweep through our student body quickly (praying, of course, for mild or asymptomatic cases all around), leaving everyone with beefed up antibodies and, equally important, no one left to infect. Then it’ll be business as usual as this wave flows away (probably just in time for flu season—ha!).

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I enjoyed this article not only for the spritely writing and insight into what teachers do to prep for their classes but also because I’ve been on the ‘distance’ side of things for quite some time now.

    A few years ago, I was studying to become a deaconess (it’s a non-ordination ministry to women and children); my seminary was in Maine and I’m, of course, in Florida. My theology class was held by the dean of the seminary and attended by me and our senior deaconess who was auditing the classes with an eye to where improvements might be made. While one on one instruction is invaluable (and forces one to do their homework as there are no other distractions, lol), if I’m the only one asking questions, then there are a multitude of questions not being asked. I have found that the questions other people ask are as informative and clarifying as the ones I ask. Other people’s knowledge, or lack thereof, is as informative as direct teaching.

    Today, I take Zoom Bible study at two different churches and because my own church closed its doors in December of last year, I ‘attend’ church via Face Book live streaming. The Bible studies are fun – all the questions (ok – mainly mine) help focus a better understanding and I get to hear the questions – and answers to – other peoples ideas of what Scripture means or portends.

    While distance learning is not the best way, it certainly fills a void that would have become seriously depressing during the ‘The Year’, and now living through The Year – Part 2.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for your wonderful insights, Audre. I think virtual learning can be quite productive and engaging, IF the right instructor and students are involved. My online classes at the technical college, for example, are largely self-paced, so there is very little interaction between the students and me other than e-mails and feedback on assignments. Because of that, I try to give VERY detailed feedback, and to respond to e-mail quickly, and students have remarked in that past that they appreciated the personal touch, something they’ve told me is lacking in most of their online courses.

      You would be an ideal online student, as you will be engaged and inquisitive no matter what. Some students really thrive in the online space, and it does eliminate many classroom distractions. One thing I enjoyed about virtual teaching early on was that I no longer had to sacrifice class time to dealing with disciplinary issues.

      That said, for younger students, it’s easy for them to get distracted with online learning, and you can really sense that engagement plummets—or becomes even non-existent! For the vast majority of middle and high school students, I would not recommend it. For highly motivated learners and adults, I think it can work quite well.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Living on my own through endless Covid lockdowns with no TV, no radio because I have banished the BBC from my life apart from a little bit of Radio 3 (classical music station) if I am in the car has meant that I had to rely a great deal on the internet to stay in touch with people and for entertainment. Facetime and FB Messenger allowed me to talk to friends face to face and I joined Audre for online streaming of church services and for Wednesday afternoon Zoom Bible with the powerhouse that is Bishop Chandler Jones of St Barnabas in Atlanta. However, no matter how great all that has been there is no substitute for real life interaction. During the enforced stay at home periods I found an Anglo Catholic church about 30 miles from here and started attending in person three Sundays ago. It is an hour’s drive each way across the Somerset Levels and it has been a revelation to be in a lovely church with the incense, the bells, the music and an excellent priest of the old school. I still watch daily mass a couple of times a week online but I wish I could be there in person more often. Internet is way better than nothing of course but the intensity of emotion I feel when I am at Holy Trinity in person cannot be replicated sitting in front of an iPad.

    Liked by 3 people

    • You’ve beautifully illustrated the power of in-person, face-to-face worship (and mere social interaction, for that matter). We are certainly blessed to be connected across vast distances via the Internet—I think most of my readers are British now!—but there is no substitute for personal interaction. Mass at your Anglo Catholic church across the Somerset Levels sounds absolutely beautiful. Should I ever find myself over there, I’d love to attend with you.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Even this old fairly austere Lutheran knows for a fact that there is no, none, nada substitute for the ‘bells and smells’, and especially the music of an old line Anglo-Catholic service/Mass. We’re pretty good ourselves, but that is another entire level. Online services never really clicked for me.

      My only real experience of distance learning was a course on Magna Charta offered by University College London for the 800th anniversary. It was good, but I expected that (the professor was a friend of a friend and highly recommended). The odd thing was that the English, Australian, Canadian and whatnot students were bumps on a log, the entire course (student side) was carried by Americans (most of us knew as much as the TAs), and strangely an Italian and an Argentine.

      Other than that, I’ve done some technical electrical seminars over the years and they had mixed results. It all depended on the instructor. Some make Marilyn Monroe boring, and some can make a page of math fun.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Yes, a good instructor can take any subject matter, in any format, and make it engaging and interesting.

        I’m not entirely surprised that the Americans were leading the discussion. I suspect we’re much more comfortable expressing our thoughts and opinions in mixed company than our cousins of various Anglo-Saxon extractions.

        I certainly appreciate the atmosphere of worship in a High Protestant and/or Catholic church. They understand the importance of setting the stage in a way that some of us lowlier Protties don’t.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s more than that, although that’s true. In 1939 the British brought over a copy, (Lincoln Cathedral\s, I think) and exhibited it in their pavilion. They were amazed at the lines, some half million saw it. Even the Ambassador was flat amazed, said in England they hang in dark corners of the cathedrals. But we teach it, and always have. There is a copy at the National Archives, right next to our Delcalration of Independence.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Your post addresses the crux of the problem with distance learning quite well. As a stop-gap measure it is certainly better than nothing and some students do a decent job. However, if there is no one to assure that those hard to engage students are not playing games or distracted by their cat or sibling or technical difficulties, then it is virtually pointless.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Agreed, Lindy. The distractions available to students in-school are bad enough; unsupervised and at home, they are truly insurmountable. If anything, virtual learning really helps identify the wheat and the chaff—there are some students who really thrive in that environment, but they would thrive in virtually _any_ educational environment. The vast majority of students, however, struggle with virtual learning, especially over long periods of time.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. ‘I’m hoping to get in a nice session of Civilization VI this evening, in fact, to try to finish up the game I started a couple of weeks ago.’

    There’s a few things I need to sort out with the computer – it needs a damn good clean and I need to replace the CD drive with a CD writer (Tina wants me to copy every single DVD we have to the computer) – before we put any more games on it. I’ll probably get some of the civilisation games. To be honest, I thought the Civilisation games were old and you’d probably need a patch for them. If they’re still making them, excellent.

    We bought Little Nightmares 2 this morning and that should come through soon so we’ll be on the Playstation for a while. We’ve still got games we bought ages ago that we haven’t played – Dying Light, The Evil Within, Red Dead 2 and Alan Wake – so we’ll get on those while I’m doing the long job of copying films.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Civilization is a storied franchise that does, indeed, go back to the MS-DOS/Windows 3.1 era. But Civilization VI is a flash, modern game, with all the bells, whistles, and graphics faders you could want, haha.

      Good luck with your computer maintenance. I fear that my rig will require a decent overhaul in another year or two. It’s still kicking along pretty well, but it’ll need some updates at some point.

      My younger brother built a Plex server at his home and has digitized all of their Blu-Rays and DVDs, so they can stream their movies remotely. It’s been a real boon for them, as they can pull up the kids’ shows from pretty much anywhere, on any device (unless they have a power or Internet outage at their house, of course).

      I’ve still gotsta try Little Nightmares. I have it on Steam; just gotta install it and give it a go. Dying Light is quite fun, especially when playing with friends. I have Alan Wake but haven’t played it, either; my younger brother says it is quite good.

      Happy copying, 39PD—and happy gaming!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Cheers PP and you too. Just remember when you install Little Nightmares to also install the free DLC’s – The Depth, The Hideaway and The Residence. Once you’ve completed the actual game, which is quite short, if you have the DLC’s already installed, you’ll go straight to them and it’ll feel like a prolonged game, rather than a stop start.

        Happy hunting and beware the granny! 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

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