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Virtual Learning for Students K-12: Best Friend or Worst Foe?

Virtual learning has been a miracle for students in their pursuit of education while staying home. However, for as much praise as it gets, some vocal critics raise legitimate concern with its efficacy for students K-12 So who’s right? The answer is simpler than you might think.

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2020 has not been without some new challenges. The past few months have required patience, perseverance, and above all, online learning tools for things we simply never imagined would be done digitally. Parents and educators alike have been called on to help students transition into digital classrooms in the “age of virtual learning”. The term ‘virtual learning’ has only recently become colloquial, but virtual learning isn’t new at all.

When computers became a staple in the American household, education researchers immediately recognized the gold-mine of tools educators now had at their disposal. What’s not to like? Online learning at it’s offset made it possible for students in remote areas and students with disabilities to participate in classroom settings they otherwise wouldn’t have. However, critics, for many good reasons, cast doubt on the efficacy of online learning. Many of us have experienced the perils of school in the digital world, so what’s the truth? Is it time to close physical schools and set sail towards online learning? Or is it time to give up on Zoom? As one can imagine, the right answer is likely more nuanced than that.

Virtual learning environments have given students and teachers a shiny new set of tools but with great power, comes great responsibility. The truth of the matter is that the efficacy of virtual learning environments or VLE’s is, to a large degree, up to instructors and institutions. Unsurprisingly, curricula, and instructional methods that don’t work in physical classrooms are nearly certain to fail in a digital setting. However, even the best of classes shouldn’t expect to thrive pursuing online learning without adjustment.

Researchers at MIT have recently established virtual learning or “distance learning” can be just as effective as traditional learning, but educators should expect to make some alterations. Although the transition to online learning seems daunting, education centers like Tip-Top Brain demonstrate the promise of well-developed online courses. One thing remains true of both online and digital classes: face-to-face interactions between teachers and students are pivotal in learning outcomes.

So, how do we facilitate meaningful face-to-face interactions online? Luckily, many before have sought answers to this very question. Here are a few foolproof guiding principles effective virtual instructors employ:

Virtual Learning Expectations Should Be Clear

As important as it is for student’s to work up a “brain sweat”, complicated instructions not only create a barrier to student engagement, but they can leave students feeling discouraged. From the instructor’s perspective, this ensures that precious class time is spent working through a lesson, not merely trying to begin class. Better yet, simple instructions help instructors cut down on “teacher talking time,” offering more time for students to speak.

A good means of evaluating class instructions is by “playing student” and trying to follow instructions without inferring their meaning. While following along, assume you have no prior knowledge of the activity and take note of where within instructions you’re inferring the directions, as opposed to reading them literally.

For instance, if the instruction said “Draw a line cutting the square in half,” and you had no prior knowledge of the activity, this instruction would be ambiguous. If the directive was instead, “Draw a line from one corner to the diagonal corner, cutting the square in half,” the range of drawings might come up with will be smaller and more predictable. All in all, clear instructions are a facet of any successful virtual classroom, and straight forward instructions work to everybody’s advantage.

Plan to Hit Some Bumps

Along the way, classrooms will surely hit a speed bump, but if the instructor has a sense of where, it can make all the difference. Whether the hiccup is digital or content-based, effective instructors know having a “plan B” is of the utmost importance. Ultimately, this mitigates the stress of online learning for students and instructors alike—never mind the time saved. For instance, imagine you’re being led through a paper folding activity in class, however, other students are having trouble following along. Effective virtual instructors should have a backup plan here, perhaps visual aids at the ready for students to follow.

Alternatively, the instructor may rewind to a simpler, related folding activity to precede their more complicated activity. In any case, students are best served when they have a carefully crafted route through a lesson for when class gets confusing, and with the new challenges of online learning, some things are bound to get lost in translation.

Keep Online Learning Lively

Last but not least, learning ought to be fun, and distance learning has inspired creative ways to help students crack a smile or have a laugh. Digital learning poses the new challenge of maintaining a student’s focus while they’re at home. Without an engaging atmosphere, face-to-face interactions quickly become face-to-screen and an opportunity is lost. No less, socialization is arguably as important as the content being taught, so any opportunity for students to interact with their peers is a win.

Luckily, young students are itching for fun, so liveliness won’t take much encouragement for them. However, guiding a students’ excitement towards the lesson at hand isn’t necessarily trivial. During class activities, students should be asked lots of questions (i.e. “What do you think of Galileo’s actions? Would you have done that?”), as it not only engages them personally in class, but students become curious about what their classmates will have to say, and are inclined to listen.

Although these strategies are by no means exhaustive, they offer a strong foundation for facilitating effective virtual learning. With the support and adaptability of rockstar teachers, online learning can be a positively worthwhile experience. It goes without saying that teachers, students, and parents alike are itching for schools to reopen, but what role might virtual learning play come this Fall? We’ll know soon enough, but for now, growing accustomed to VLE’s, and developing a positive outlook on virtual learning may prove advantageous for students in the coming months.

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