Online learning during COVID-19

Mahika Pandey, Lexington, MA

The string of lock-downs, cancellations, and social distancing measures announced in March seemed to give much of the country whiplash — in just the few weeks much of what defines everyday life became a public health risk, and we found ourselves adjusting to a new reality. These shifts were particularly sudden for students, who went from seeing friends and teachers every day to embarking on a spring of online learning.

Most of us have only ever taken classes in person, ten feet from the teacher at most and just an arms-length from a peer we could turn to with a question. Elementary and middle school education brushes through the basics of English, math, history, science to set us up for deeper study in high school and beyond, but the most crucial lesson of these years is learning how to learn — how to process information, collaborate with peers, participate actively in discussion. These skills are not easily teachable in virtual classrooms, where you cannot so much as make eye contact with another person and class discussions are stilted by wavering internet connections. I’ve noticed students, myself included, hesitate to speak in virtual classes, where you cannot chime in with a quick thought, but rather have to deliberately unmute yourself and interrupt someone in an awkward dance of lagging audio to participate in discussion. Three months (or more, if schools and colleges remain virtual this fall) of online learning is a deep setback to students’ growth and learning.

This spring has felt like a slow-burn fumble of our education: teachers worked quickly in March to re-imagine their classrooms to a digital space, but this is a first for many of them, too, so most classes leave me wistful about all the ways the hour-long Zoom lesson would have been better if we were all in the same room. The skills we’ve picked up through years of school — discussing, questioning, engaging with each other — are simply not as exercisable over Zoom, and it’s difficult to reconfigure your tried and tested learning methods in a matter of weeks.

As a high school senior, I’ve lamented the loss of a graduation, prom, traditional senior spring with the rest of the class of 2020, but more urgently, I worry about the unfamiliar terrain college presents in just a few short months. The vast majority of universities have yet to make a decision on how they will hold classes this fall, but a completely virtual first semester of college is daunting. Even after nearly two months of online learning, I’ve yet to adjust to seeing my classmates and teachers in a grainy patchwork on my computer. I still find myself frustrated and unproductive working alone in my house, instead of the quiet buzz of the school library. Virtual college sounds draining and lonely.

The reality that I’ve experienced and that I anticipate is bleak but pretty non-negotiable if the health and safety of school communities are at risk. It seems all we can do is keep throwing ourselves in the deep end and find positives to online learning. No, this isn’t forever, but it’s also not temporary enough that we can push through and ignore the larger problem — if schools are going to be online, classes must be crafted to not just be deliverable in an online format, but to take advantage of virtual classrooms and the opportunities they present. I hope along with everyone else that I’m packing my bags for college in the fall and registering for in-person classes, but in the increasingly likely scenario where that doesn’t happen, students, teachers, and administrators have the summer to steel themselves for the alternative. However difficult it may be, online learning is our new reality, and we have to find ways to make it work.

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