Online Learning More Important Than Ever in the Face of COVID-19 Crisis
Teachers Rise to the Challenge as Education Community Also Looks to the Future
The familiar proverb “It takes a village” feels particularly appropriate in the education world right now. With schools shut down across the country, teachers everywhere are grappling with an online teaching “learning curve” as they seek out ways to create meaningful, virtual experiences for their students.
Many are drawing on shared ideas and resources provided by a wide spectrum of organizations as they teach themselves how to replace face-to-face interaction and build online classrooms.
The good news is that online learning has made extraordinary advances in recent years. And it is a safe bet that lessons learned in the face of the current challenge will contribute to further advancements in the world of online teaching and learning long after the COVID-19 crisis has faded into history.
“Students, teachers, K-12 schools and colleges who once were skeptical will employ more online curriculum and practices having the opportunity to experience this form of learning,” said Joseph Lathan, PhD, Academic Director, for the University of San Diego’s online Master of Education program.
Online Education | Rising to the Challenge
Teachers are resourceful even in the best of times, and the current challenge has brought out educational innovation as well as inspiration. For example, the need to stay in close communication — with students, of course, but also with parents, fellow teachers and administrators — has given rise to creative use of nearly every communication platform available.
Videoconferencing technology like Zoom is definitely getting a lot of use, but it can be very difficult to gather a group of children for online lessons in real time. Not everyone has equal access to technology — homes with multiple students may not have enough computers to go around and bandwidth issues can easily disrupt even the most well-planned virtual classroom experience.
Getting Creative with Education Communication
In addition to the many creative and engaging online platforms, educators are using every communication tool available to them. This is out of necessity, both to perform their teaching duties but also to support parents as they adapt to playing a more significant role in their children’s educational experience.
- Teachers are videotaping lessons for students to watch when they can.
- They are sending emails with resource packets and learning menus tied to specific lessons and broader topics.
- They are using cellphones, even an occasional landline, to stay in close contact with parents and colleagues.
- Text messaging has also been an important tool for quick correspondence.
- Even “snail mail” is part of the equation, used to send material but also to brighten the days of students with whom they share an emotional as well as an educational connection.
Receiving a note, letter or postcard from their teacher can mean a lot to a student — and the reverse is equally true. Dianna Breneman, a Title 1 coordinator and reading interventionist at Woodman Park Elementary School in Dover, NH, described her joy at receiving mail from a young student after a rough day. “For an educator to get a letter back from a student … four sentences and a little heart, and that’s all I needed,” she said.
The Online Education Technology ‘Learning Curve’
Of course, there is an ever-expanding array of online education tools and platforms (WeAreTeachers.com has curated a large collection at “300+ Amazing Online Learning Resources”). Breneman said her school district is using a variety of different platforms, including:
- Google Classroom — A free service developed in collaboration with educators across the country to help teachers easily create, distribute and grade assignments, and share files online.
- ClassDojo– This fun free service connects teachers, students and parents in virtual classroom communities. Students can showcase and share their learning by adding photos and videos to their own portfolios. (Watch a short “Remote Learning on ClassDojo” video.)
- Zoom – Immensely popular among people from all walks of life who are now working remotely, Zoom is being used by teachers for real-time contact with both students and team members. (Advice for “Creating Your Online Classroom Environment” is being shared by teachers Megan Allen and Casey Daigle in their Zoom Education “Playbook.”)
Blackboard, described as “a simple and reliable virtual classroom solution to power your online teaching and web conferencing needs,” is the distance learning platform of choice for many academic institutions, including the University of San Diego’s online master’s degree programs.
“Web conferencing has drastically improved since the days of Skype and Go-To-Meetings,” said Lathan. “The downloads were clunky and complicated, and the connectivity was unreliable. Zoom has changed the web conferencing game and not only is the software reliable but also easy to learn. Having Zoom integrated into Blackboard makes a seamless process to promote students and faculty to use the synchronous tool in their classes to enrich the learning experience. Students have the opportunity to connect not only with their professors in a more intimate way but also with their classmates.”
Is Online Learning the Future of Education?
The number of students getting part or all of their college education online has been growing steadily for quite some time, and there is widespread belief that the shift to virtual learning necessitated by the coronavirus will accelerate this trend.
“Right now, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing global experimentation with remote teaching,” the Harvard Business Review observes in an article analyzing the possibilities (“What the Shift to Virtual Learning Could Mean for the Future of Higher Ed”).
“A variety of factors — most notably the continuously increasing cost of tuition, already out of reach for most families, implies that the post-secondary education market is ripe for disruption. The coronavirus crisis may just be that disruption. … What if this experiment proves that a college education doesn’t have to bankrupt a person? After the crisis subsides, is it best for all students to return to the classroom, and continue the status quo? Or will we have found a better alternative?”
The COVID-19 crisis will likely have a dramatic, ongoing impact on K-12 education as well.
Millions of U.S. students were already taking part in digital learning before the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of schools across the country. Now the nation’s teachers have fresh experience with how to build meaningful educational experiences that engage students outside the traditional physical classroom.
“Online learning, once reserved for higher education, is now a growing trend among K-12 students nationwide,” according to “Disrupting Education: The Rise of K-12 Online,” a Forbes.com article written months before the 2020 public health crisis. “Over 2.7 million students across the United States are taking part in digital learning, and many students in grades K-12 are getting a high-quality education online through a full-time online public school.”
The article describes multiple models of public K-12 online education and asserts that, “Online learning at K-12 level has grown from an experiment to a movement.”
Assessing the Effectiveness of Online Learning
With heightened focus on online learning, the ongoing challenge will be to ensure that providers are equipped to consistently deliver effective, high-quality educational experiences.
Some studies show higher “retention rates” associated with eLearning, but education advocates assert that new models will need to be created for:
- Developing online learning programs
- Updating and adapting programs to keep material and techniques up to date
- Assessing program effectiveness and measuring outcomes
“A successful online program starts with an effective course design that allows students to interact and engage with the material and the instructor,” Lathan said. “Additionally, the courses should address different learning styles (audio, video, images, etc.). The second requirement for a successful online program is having teachers that are not only subject matter experts but also practitioners of their field of study to provide students with more “real world” experiences. At USD, we realize the need to consistently update our courses and overall curriculum to reflect today’s teaching and learning best practices.”
Teachers Share Inspiration in the Face of Crisis
Some of the most inspirational stories are of educators simply reaching out through video to share heartfelt messages with their students. The dean of students at a high school in Colonie, NY, sought to start each day in a familiar way by doing the “morning announcements” over Facebook Live.Teachers everywhere are taking to YouTube and other video platforms to speak to their students. Many students are communicating in often endearing ways too, as seen in this video from the Washington Post.
Amid the ongoing need to stay inspired, many teachers are also experiencing a rush of excitement as they rise to the challenge of online education. For many, engaging in the process of learning new tools and technologies, and getting creative in how to put them into practice, can also feel like a valuable form of professional development.
“Teachers are also saying they’re excited because they’re learning new things that they’ll be able to use when we come out of this,” said Breneman, the teacher from New Hampshire. The shared focus on discovering new ways to inspire students, she said, is all part of keeping spirits high and “looking for the rainbow” in the face of this challenge.