Why would a student or family CHOOSE to learn or take classes digitally? The answer is easy – because there are benefits for students that exist on this learning platform! In the late winter of 2011, our family made the researched and conscious decision to allow our oldest son to finish high school online through another Wisconsin school district that provided an established virtual school with a good reputation. In the fall of his junior year, he started classes online, instead of at our high school. Less than two years later, he finished high school through that platform.
I know the question you are asking: Why? Why would you allow him to do this and why would he want to remove himself from a traditional classroom setting?
Some of the answers were illuded to in an article Edutopia published last week that included the benefits to remote learning. Many of the benefits of remote learning that the author discusses in the article rang true as I read them. Today, I picked a few to expand upon. Perhaps, I will expand on a few more in a future post.
One of the biggest benefits of digital learning is that of being able to self-pace. This was also a major reason our son cited for wanting to change platforms to finish high school. He was a serious, academically talented, exceptional student. He figured that of an 8 hour school day, approximately only 3 hours was spent on teaching and learning. Really?! This is somewhat hard to believe until you really think about it. Between the time spent changing classes, lunch hours, distractions caused by other students, and the constant spiraling up of curriculum which entailed many periods of review, hours were wasted.
Being an efficient user of his time, and desirous of more academic challenge, the hours wasted during a traditional school day were a fervent irritation! The Edutopia article points to this as well. Breaks from learning can be taken on demand, not when the bell rings or period ends. Recharging from exercise or practicing music can be interspersed among the academic classes. Snacks can be had if breakfast was skipped or not “enough” on a particular day. Even a nap can be had if needed.
Managing one’s own time is a critical skill needed for success in the “real world” beyond a K-12 education. Unfortunately, the current system does not allow for much of that to take place. Arguably, the independent nature of online learning provides a much better opportunity to learn these skills.
New Platform, New Vocabulary
Now, much of the self-pacing experience depends upon whether the online (remote) classes are synchronous or asynchronous. These are two words that need to be clearly understood when entering a remote learning environment. Most of the learning I refer to in my posts on distance learning is asynchronous. This means that the student can access the course, learn the material, perform the assignments and assessments, and submit them all on their own schedule. There are due dates, of course. But, when and how you obtain and study the material is up to you, the student. Most classes, even asynchronous ones, have material scheduled on a weekly basis. But, a major difference between that and synchronous classes is that the student does not have to “attend” the online class for instruction at a certain time. This is the case with an asynchronous online class. For example, if taking calculus online using a class that is synchronous in format, the student would sign on to class every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a one-hour session of instruction.
If self-pacing is a desired attribute of online learning, then asynchronous classes are what should be pursued.
A Myth: Lowered Stakes
Yes, right now, there might be a perceived “lowering of stakes” during the pandemic when state and standardized testing have been canceled. Yes, many secondary schools have gone to a pass/fail for the term/semester in an attempt to provide some equity. Yes, grades have been mainly formative to allow students to adjust to this new, remote learning experience. All that makes sense, for the most part. But, it is circumstantial, caused by the pandemic. It is not “usual” – even for distance learning.
I warn you not to be fooled that remote education is some kind of diluted learning. It does not have a history of being so. There are still benchmarks, still grades, still class ranks, and GPA’s. There are still expectations of excellence. And, so there should be. My son’s virtual school had teachers, administrators, and even guidance counselors – everything except the walls.
When learning from an online environment, the stress to perform is still there, it just comes from a different source, perhaps. Parents, instead of teachers, are now in the position of having to encourage, motivate, and check on student engagement. Students might be able to get their work done more efficiently due to self-pacing. This might led parents to wonder if their child is actually doing their work. Teachers are chasing down assignment submissions digitally which is more difficult than talking to a student in class about late or missing work. There is still stress and there is still an expectation of excellence that comes with competition. Although it might seem diluted now, it is normally not the case.
Right now, overextension by students is being prevented by the social distancing and stay at home orders of our government. But, if those restrictions were not in place, some of the students excelling at online learning right now, might not be. The call of co-curricular activity and socialization is strong and time-consuming whether it be theater, band, sports, or service organizations.
The return to being able to participate in the extracurricular activities will place more burden on students/families who think they can successfully continue to learn online.
I agree that students, in general, are overextended. The pandemic has confirmed what I have thought for a long time – we are requiring our students to do a lot with their time that is just not of essential nature for learning. This brings about the bigger question of, what is the purpose of school? This question, although extremely important, is too large to address in this post.
Extracurricular activities provide a lot of learning opportunities for our students. And, despite them being a drain on time, involvement should be encouraged. However, maybe some consideration should be given to when enough is enough. It takes a great deal of discipline to continue with extracurricular activities and succeed with independent learning in an online environment, even if they are allowed! This is something that deserves more thought.
But, on the flip side, sometimes online learning allows students the flexibility and more time to pursue one’s passions if they have already figured out what those are. Art, music, theater, extreme athleticism in singular sports like ice skating, or skiing come to mind. The students that go this route are not void of having social experiences, they are just having them in a way that doesn’t include fighting their way through the halls of a crowded high school.
I do think, given the rise in the anxiety of our youth, curtailing overscheduling would be a step in the right direction. But, I do not think to do so rests on the shoulders of online learning.
In conclusion, it makes perfect sense to me that some students are excelling in the online learning environments brought about by the pandemic. But, not everyone will – and, that makes sense, too. I hope we, as educators, use this time and experience to consider what changes in our educational systems are necessary and what changes are not. And, I also hope that the changes are made with student needs at the center.
I offer this perspective today not only as a parent of a high school student soon to graduate, thrust into the online learning platform like everyone else but also as a former digital student. I’ve experienced two graduate degrees – one entirely face to face, and one was entirely online, almost thirty years apart. While different, both were quality programs.
I also offered today’s blog as a parent who allowed her student elect to be educated online, not because of struggling, but because of the advantages like self-pacing and increased challenge.
I hope when the pandemic is over, there might be more opportunity to share personal experiences such as mine, before systemic decisions are made that affect the student populace, in general.