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.
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).