We are almost to the end of what has been a very strange school year.
For years, virtual learning has been heralded as the wave of the future. Technology can assist teachers in their jobs, much as it can assist most other professions. I wrote a report on “blended learning” on behalf of the Philanthropy Roundtable back in 2012. Some innovative charter schools, for instance, had been using math software to let kids practice concepts, and then sending in teachers to work with kids on gaps the software turned up. Learning could be individualized. Teachers could spend their time teaching instead of grading worksheets.
As with work, much education can happen anywhere. Virtual learning means that the pool of potential instructors is no longer limited to those who live within an hour or so of you. In my hunt for virtual options, I signed two of my kids up for a coding camp that turned out to be based in Hong Kong. This didn’t actually work (the time difference! The teacher reached out to me at 6:30 a.m. wondering why the kids hadn’t been in class at 4 a.m.) Thankfully, they were able to shift us to a US-based course, but the fact that I could make that mistake hints at the possibilities.
So, virtual education had been on the rise. Then, March and the COVID-19 pandemic happened. In the span of a few weeks, schools around the world closed to in-person instruction, and teachers and students began a huge experiment with virtual work.
It’s hard to know what conclusions to draw. Certainly, many things can be learned virtually. My kids have done a mix of synchronous and asynchronous instruction (we wound up getting a faster internet set-up to handle three kids being on Zoom every morning at 9:30, with a fourth often meeting with teachers then as well). I now know that if my family needed to homeschool long term, we could do it. I would probably enroll the older kids in subject matter virtual tutoring (as we already do for writing for Jasper with Varsity Tutors). The younger ones would read with me and practice math on Dreambox and similar programs.
On the other hand, this has been a crisis, not a controlled experiment. Everyone had to scramble. As numerous articles pointed out, many kids just went missing — often those most at risk of falling through the cracks anyway. Special education services have in many cases just not happened (including evaluations for kids to qualify for services). Parents struggling to work from home for the first time have had to figure out how to monitor their kids’ lessons too — a far more stressful proposition than a family actively choosing to homeschool with the help of virtual offerings, or even my set-up (mom already working from home in a highly flexible job).
My experience has been that the efficacy of virtual learning depends a lot on the kid and what they’re doing. My kids’ teachers adapted as well as could be imagined. Still, some of my kids are more self-motivated than others when it comes to school work. Some needed hand-holding that I could not always make happen. And some are just young. My 5-year-old had to sit on my lap every morning in order to make it through a 20-minute virtual circle time. I enjoyed watching his preschool teachers present these amazingly well-thought-through lessons, but he would still knock things off my desk or get up and run away. I gave up on trying to get him to sit through the story time or music classes his preschool offered within a few days. I also found that small group or one-on-one virtual learning was often more engaging for the kids. Just as a 20-person Zoom call with your colleagues can get unwieldy, the same can happen with simultaneous group instruction, though good facilitation helps a lot.
Gov. Wolf has announced that the goal is for Pennsylvania schools to re-open for in-person instruction in September. Our district is also considering a plan (should it be necessary) for elementary school students to attend in person and secondary students to have more virtual instruction. In our house this would match the comfort level each kid has with virtual learning. It also recognizes the childcare function that schools play.
I’ve asked my kids for their thoughts on virtual learning. They like having more free time. We went strawberry picking on Wednesday this week, despite it still being a school day. But for the learning part itself they’ve talked about preferring to be in school. Maybe — just maybe — this realization will make rousing them and getting them going in the morning easier in the future, when school goes back to something closer to normal.