“There’s a degree of humanness in person in real time. I’m pretty concerned going forward that that can’t be achieved through a screen.” Eliot Min, Harvard ’23
As schools everywhere shutter their buildings and move online, parents and teachers hear “remote learning” and imagine a loss of routine, uninspired lessons, and severed relationships. As a parent navigating my own child’s first foray into learning at a distance, I struggle with what her experience will be — from the logistics to the cognitive growth.
Yet as an educator who has spent nearly a decade in the online learning space, I’m optimistic. I know that, done well, online schooling can be every bit as meaningful, connected, and rigorous as traditional in-person learning. Moreover, schools have never been better prepared to do this right.
Of course, there are real problems with closing school buildings, especially related to supervision of children, the ripple effects on parents, and disruption of school meals. Even families with technical resources may not have enough devices for every family member to learn and work at the same time — or the space to do so.
But now we’re in it, and the many schools with which I work are doing an admirable job making a quick “toggle,” as one school leader put it, to a new kind of school.
Here are a few ways that educators can make the most of online learning:
1. Connect in Real Time
Gone are the days of disconnected, isolated students plodding through message board comments or watching endless lectures on demand. Online learning done right puts value on “synchronous” time — live interaction through video conferencing. As the most successful online programs know, the magic happens when students and teachers can be seen and heard. When I taught 7th-grade American History online, I could not always tell the height of my students or smell the lunch they would eat in class, but I could certainly pick up on their body language. I knew when a student was having a bad day. We had the same kinds of inside jokes one finds in any classroom. And their connections were real.
In the program I lead now — which connects high school juniors and seniors across the country in advanced electives online — students have journeyed across states to meet their online classmates in person for the first time. They regularly request college recommendation letters from teachers with whom they have never shared a physical space. In the case of a pandemic, teachers have a special responsibility to connect with students this way, ask them how they are doing, and give them space just to be together. Connecting live is an exercise in empathy.
2. Flip the Classroom
Teaching well online depends on “flipping the classroom,” reserving class time for interaction (e.g. discussion, debate, presentations) and out-of-class time for watching recorded lectures, reading or lab work, and completing assignments, some of which might even be group activities. In our educator training, brick and mortar teachers make this transition by listing out everything they do in a traditional course and then pulling out anything that does not absolutely have to occur in live class. Lecturing? No — record a video explaining the subject and have students answer question as they watch. Checking basic understanding? No — require an online quiz before class starts. Don’t use precious time together to do anything other than the most human of learning activities — asking complex questions, challenging one another, and constructing knowledge.
The best online programs have undergone a fundamental rethinking of “seat time” and the traditional school schedule created during the Industrial Revolution. There is a reason that the flipped classroom and new concepts of learning time have caught on in brick and mortar classrooms, and most schools in my world are rethinking school schedules. Our online teachers find they can cover roughly the same content as in a traditional format but go deeper in seminar discussions, forced to cut out what’s not essential. Several have taken the online version of a class they teach, such as Multivariable Calculus, and completely redesigned the brick and mortar version to follow the same format.
3. Make it Meaningful
There is a surprising richness in bringing students’ home environments into class and the class into those spaces. Educators always “get to know” their students, but it’s something else when you can see a middle schooler’s dog wander around behind her or suddenly hear the music a sibling has decided to blast from another room during a senior’s practice debate speech. Teachers encountering their students at home in high definition have the opportunity to bring students’ diverse lives into the classroom. The same is true for one-on-one conversations such as counseling sessions. When I interviewed applicants to Stanford Online High School, I picked up tremendous information from seeing a student at home (while staying attuned to bias).
Teachers can create new assignments that make use of the home space — kitchen lab work with a grandparent’s recipe, interviewing a relative, writing about the noise of the city bus, or plotting the pace of the neighborhood jogger. Our program values the geographic diversity of our students, allowing them to discuss issues across political divides or complete projects on their local food systems, architecture, or Native American history. Why not take advantage of different perspectives that are not usually represented in the classroom, even if students live in the same community?
4. Recreate Everything That Matters
Outside of the classroom, online learning is actually pretty exciting. Full-time online high schools, such as Stanford Online High School, build community through many of the “normal” activities we all value in schools. (In fact, my first job there was as Director of Student Life, which seemed like a joke to many!) Most activities our schools cherish can exist online: homeroom/advisory, assemblies, extracurricular activities, counseling, college guidance. Even physical education can morph into the online space! I once launched a virtual lunch period, during which students ate their lunches while doodling on a virtual whiteboard and discussing their plans for winter break. Debaters can debate, students can perform musically, and advisors can meet with students, all through video conference. A brick and mortar school moving online ought to leave space in the schedule for these activities and casual connections. They are especially important now because they foster routine, familiarity, and community connection.
5. You Can Do It!
Social media is abuzz with college professors and secondary school teachers alike unsure how they’ll make the transition online. Those feelings are valid, and it is a lot to ask a teacher to reframe a course quickly. Yet on the whole, educational institutions have never been more prepared to make a quick switch online. Good online learning makes use of the talent already “in the building,” and good teachers typically make good online teachers. Many who have never taught online already flip their classrooms. Moreover, while there are vast variations among schools, many already have facility with video conferencing systems and licenses with learning management systems, which allow for submitting and returning assignments, posting syllabi, taking attendance, and more. More free tools pop up by the minute.
Indeed, several school leaders have admitted to me of late that the possibility (or reality) of closure is forcing some of the change they knew they ought to make anyway: spurring teachers to set up websites for their courses, move away from the lecture format, and find efficiencies using technology so as to emphasize learning relationships.
Challenges still abound: from equity concerns to supervision of children (too much or too little), to the time it takes teachers to prepare for a new kind of teaching to time zones for university students suddenly dispersed across the globe. Online learning is harder to implement with very young students. However, even if clumsily at first, schools with strong communities will transition online, staying true to their missions and values. Precisely because they exist in the brick and mortar world, their strong in-person interactions will carry them into the virtual world seamlessly. They will continue to learn together and care for one another for as long as the school building is closed — and return to it more joyful than ever.
Claire Goldsmith is Executive Director of the Malone Schools Online Network, a consortium of brick and mortar independent schools across the United States collaborating to offer advanced high school electives in virtual seminars. Previously, she ran admissions and external relations and taught at Stanford Online High School.