Eureka and Middle School Math · Remote/Digital Learning · UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Living Inside Virtual Education

After nine years with the same district, I left in August to take a job in a virtual school. The reasons are many and many both including and beyond COVID and health risks, but one of them is because I believe in the need for virtual education, but I also believe in helping to make it an academically strong choice.

Online learning is still being presented in the media as a second- (or third- or lower-) class choice, a poor stepsister to “real” education. From my own past experiences as a student and more recently as a teacher under remote emergency education, I don’t believe that the only place quality education can happen is inside brick walls.

With that said, I do believe that there are unique additional and/or new barriers in virtual education, especially at the K-12 level, in addition to the usual barriers of education in general. One of the biggest reasons I decided to join the virtual school was to experience these barriers from the inside in an effort to understand them and work to find solutions. In the courses I taught with teachers from this school prior, I had heard about the issues, but hearing about them and living them are two different things. For me to be solidly grounded in my Universal Design for Learning (UDL) practice, to be speaking from a place of experience, not just theory, I needed to live it. So, here I am.

And what do I see? I see that virtual education both offers a huge range of options and also carries a whole range of limitations.

On the positive side, perhaps the thing I treasure most about teaching in a virtual school is that students have more or less unlimited access to flexible seating. As I read about what classrooms look like in brick-and-mortar schools, with the latest push to reopen schools involving an increased emphasis on social distancing, I appreciate that my students can sit or stand or be at a desk or on their bed or on the couch or with their pet or with their siblings or….the list goes on and on. We value autonomy and choice in our adult lives, yet are required to limit our children’s natural impetus to move and interact with each other in order to keep them safe. This breaks my heart.

I also appreciate the ways in which virtual (or remote) education reduces or removes some of the social interaction stressors for some students, particularly those who struggle with social situations. For students who don’t “read” facial cues correctly, removing that aspect of social interactions can lead to more social success. Other students might benefit from not worrying about having peers realize that they are wearing the same clothes repeatedly, whether by choice or by necessity. Still others may benefit from being able to engage in soothing, repetitive motions, out of the sight of peers, but still engaged in the learning environment of virtual or remote education.

Although I see much value in virtual education, I also see (and live) limitations in the online learning environment. No program is perfect, so each brings its own issues to the table. For example, we recently purchased a subscription to TurnItIn, which is exciting in how it allows for a speedy check of plagiarism. The issue? It only accepts text, so can only be used for assignments built around text generation. If an assignment can measure content mastery without the generation of text or the generation of only text, then a teacher who chooses to only accept assignments via TurnItIn is limiting student choice and engagement.

Another issue in virtual education in general, and perhaps it’s not fair to tie it to virtual education, as it is critical in brick-and-mortar education as well, is the question of organization of materials. It is challenging for parents to try to support their students when different teachers, different grades, different assignments, etc. all use different materials or programs. For example, some assignments ask students to “submit” their work, but others do not. For students who benefit from repetition, changing between programs and their related expectations adds another layer of challenge. In in-person education, this is often bypassed by having a teacher walk by and wait until a student hits “submit,” or perhaps a student is submitting a piece of work on paper and the issue becomes moot. As we build classes for our students virtually, being aware of how students and families experience our structures becomes critical. We cannot simply look at our structures from our side, from what we built and intended, but we must get inside the experience for the students and families in order to fully troubleshoot our attempts.

Here are some of my take-aways from a few months inside virtual education:

  1. Make sure systems allow for shared vision. If I can’t watch students and/or can’t see student work inside Kami or PearDeck or IXL, then those programs are no good in a virtual setting. We need “eyes inside,” not “eyes on.”
  2. Find ways to break through the fourth wall, that imaginary wall between the actors on stage and the audience. Teaching online can feel like teaching with a fourth wall, as the audience of students is not always very responsive. Add in anxiety issues and limitations of use of the microphone (some kids on it, other kids not), issues with inappropriate use of the chat (so the chat gets shut down), and teachers can be forgiven for the tendency to default to talking AT the class for 44 of 45 minutes.
  3. A school or program is only as good as its curriculum. If the curriculum is weak, so is the school. Illustrative Math and EngageNY/Eureka Math are the two strongest math curricula on the market, yet neither one has a virtual version.
  4. A school is only as good as the technology that drives it. If we can’t see student work, if co-teachers can’t see student work in real-time or ever, if we can’t get inside programs without violating the acceptable use policy, then the programs are setting up the school for failure.

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