In my ten years of teaching, I have taught at a public high school, a community college, a public university, and a school for gifted students. Whether I was teaching online or in person, the one consistency throughout my teaching career has (paradoxically) been the inconsistency. What worked in one classroom didn’t always work in another classroom, and lessons that didn’t quite succeed one semester went great the next. Never has the need to adapt to a rapidly changing situation been more important than it has been since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
To say that the transition from an in-person to an online classroom at the school where I teach did not go smoothly is an understatement. However, one of the unexpected outcomes of the abrupt shift to fully remote learning was that I was reminded of many of the advantages of online learning and teaching online.
Students’ Motivations Are Key
Educators and administrators worked quickly to provide a curriculum for the students in my district, which they could access digitally or in hard copy. The material was widely accessible, and our district went to great lengths to ensure that every student could access the materials and submit those materials for feedback. One of the major issues throughout this period, though, was that there seemed to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what engages students and motivates them to succeed in school. Students learn best when they are intrinsically motivated, which means they are motivated by their desire to learn rather than being motivated by external rewards like praise and good grades.
According to one survey about student engagement and motivation, 74 percent of fifth graders felt engaged with the learning material, while only 32 percent of high school juniors felt engaged. The shift to remote learning highlighted this longstanding issue of decreasing engagement throughout kids’ schooling—it did not cause it.
For me, the problem was not the format (though there were plenty of technological hiccups along the way). The problem was that students had no desire to interact with the material. Once they knew that the work didn’t “count” because it could not adversely affect their grades, many of them stopped completing it since they did not perceive any concrete benefit. Add to that heightened anxiety caused by the pandemic, stressful situations at home, and the inability to access certain school-provided resources, and it’s impossible to expect that students can effectively learn. In the face of so many difficulties, I watched as online learning became the scapegoat for the many challenges we encountered as a community.
However, online schools are actually better equipped to help students develop intrinsic motivations. According to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, one of the most effective ways to help improve students’ intrinsic motivation is by giving the student a greater sense of autonomy. Online classes provide for more personalized learning, which gives students more space to self-assess and reflect on their progress.
In my digital classroom, the flexible schedule allowed me to have more one-on-one conferences without having to simultaneously lead a lesson for the rest of the class. In those conferences, I was able to help students realize that they were in charge of their own education and that what they got out of the rest of the semester was entirely in their hands. The students who were intrinsically motivated worked with me to create individual learning plans and ended up reading and writing more in the last eight weeks of school than they had throughout the rest of the school year.
Unprecedented Times Call for Flexible Measures
There is a reason that interest in established online schooling programs has grown in recent months. Unlike the deeply disruptive transitions faced by students in traditional face-to-face schools, students in established online schools experienced a far more seamless transition. Flexibility has long been one of the draws of virtual schools, and now that the ever changing circumstances make it impossible to predict what will happen throughout the rest of the school year, having a program that is more adaptable can be instrumental in limiting students’ learning loss.
While nearly all online schools offer a greater degree of flexibility, it is important to note that not all virtual academies offer the same quality in terms of students’ educational experiences. Parents who are thinking of transitioning to a virtual school should research whether or not the school has licensed teachers and meets state assessment standards.
Making Meaningful Connections
During the early stages of the pandemic after we switched to online learning, I did not teach the curriculum that was provided. I made it available to students and provided feedback on submitted assignments, but I did not emphasize the importance of completing it. Instead, I spent my days calling and emailing students to check in on how they were doing.
With over 150 students, it was difficult to get to know them individually in the face-to-face classroom, and for the first time all year, I felt like I had a better understanding of who many of my students were outside of their role as an English student. The online learning option allowed me to build these connections, which later materialized in much stronger reflective writing for the students who took me up on the opportunity to have more of a one-on-one learning experience.
Discussions about the social aspects of traditional schooling often discount the deeper connections some online teachers are able to make with students when they aren’t dedicating as much of their time to classroom management.
Even in my pre-pandemic classes that I taught online, I also noticed broader engagement between students using tools like chat features and discussion boards. Students’ learning was not as impeded by the existence of “clicks” and other social pressures from peers in the online learning environment.