Online education or the virtual classroom are the new buzzwords in the education environment today as teachers, student and parents, responding to the government mandates about school operations, are coming to grips with new teaching techniques and new uses for technology. It’s not easy as both teachers and students are discovering but all parties are showing a willingness to embrace what may become a new standard in education. But questions still need to be answered and there is little time allowed to do the research.
With an estimated 26 % of the county’s public school students committing to total online education in lieu of a partial or hybrid classroom participation, this school year will be a good litmus test for virtual education. Arguably the final semester of last year’s traditional school year, when students were sent home in March due to the pandemic, was questionably successful. Only as those impacted students matriculate through the educational system will the results be known. This time teachers and students are a little better prepared since they have that event to compare and correct. But there are still unknowns and concerns.
Among the unknowns is how well will the students attending class online handle their assignments and retain the information provided?
The Urban Education Institute at the University of Texas at San Antonio surveyed 2,000 teacher, student and parents from nine local school districts about their experiences during the spring semester of last year’s traditional school year when students were sent home due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. That report notes that teachers are responding more positively to the virtual classroom than are the students.
Mike Villarreal, the institute’s director, noted that “nearly all teachers had to learn new skills and new techniques and new ways of translating they did in the classroom online.” And though 95% of the respondents had no prior experience, 91% felt they had gained the needed skills to do their job.
Students on the other hand were less positive about their experience with 64% reporting that they felt having learned less, 25% were keeping pace with what they would have learned in the classroom and 11% feeling they had actually learned more in the virtual environment.
There are other challenges now being identified such as the need for better infrastructure so that students can have easy and equal access to the virtual classroom. Too many regions of the county have inadequate internet connectivity which is now being addressed through a special grant to the county’s Economic Development Foundation. And, as many parents have discovered, computers, particularly Chromebook computers, are hard to come by. Morehead City Walmart, as of this week, had no low cost computers in inventory.
Another concern is increased stress on students who have opted for online only program. One county student, appearing on the Monday evening radio talk show Youthpoints on the TalkStation WTKF/WJNC, noted that he is spending far more time on his computer and digital devices which leaves less time for other activities. In other communities, parents are complaining that the virtual classroom is promoting technology overuse and in one case a parent said their child is suffering from “zoom fatigue” referencing the use of digital learning using the Zoom interface.
Confirming the Urban Education Institute report, local teachers are embracing the challenges. News-Times reporter Cheryl Burke noted in a recent story that Morehead City Primary School Kindergarten teacher Norma Jean Gomez sends out videos twice daily, then does face-to-face reading groups. “It’s a lot of work but I’m really enjoying it,” she explained.
West Carteret High School Latin teacher, Michael McGinn likewise noted the extra work required for the virtual classroom but justified his effort noting, “I believe the future of education is online.”
World events such as wars and industrial and scientific discoveries are quite often permanently disruptive. While it is questionable to seek a positive result from the current pandemic, the fact is we are seeing disruptive changes that will, in the long term, permanently alter how education is delivered. What is needed now is a willingness to embrace the opportunities. But first our educational leaders need to research the best teaching techniques and know the services required to provide the end product - a solid education.
There are lessons to be learned, figuratively and literally, but with little time allowed answers need to be determined quickly. The future of our students is dependent on handling this disruptive experience quickly and intelligently.