A Brief Defense of Virtual Learning

Understandably teachers around the country right now are balking at the prospect of accomplishing their classroom objectives online in what is looking like a prolonged season of quarantine. Many are doing this under the assumption that this is a fool’s errand, that we cannot possibly accomplish the same goals online as we can in the three-dimensional classroom. These concerns have been thoughtfully articulated by writers in this very space who take issue with online learning for two essential reasons: it reduces classroom learning to mere utilitarian (and unenforceable) work, and it robs us of learning within a community.

Utilitarian tension is a source of perpetual angst for teachers and students alike, and thoughtful teachers know their own complicity in the problem. In Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he puts forward a very famous metaphor for teaching: the bank deposit analogy. Teachers have all the knowledge and they deposit it into the brains of students, who are passive vessels in this exchange, inanimate as bank accounts. Their goal in this system is to produce, at the teacher’s will, the exact amount deposited into their accounts. This system does not assess if a student understands the information: we don’t need sentient ATM machines.

Education has thankfully moved beyond this banking model, but online teaching is still relatively new so it’s not surprising to see us return to old methodologies. Dr. Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model (pictured below) highlights what happens when we start integrating new technology into our teaching. Initial use will look like Substitution–we used to write essays with pen and paper, now we use computers. The assignment is the same; technology makes the task easier. Connected to Friere, the fear for many of us is that virtual learning will produce automatons, thoughtlessly pulling from online sources to complete assignments.

As we move up the stairs of the SAMR model, though, we integrate this tool into the creation of new lessons, lessons that make full use of the tool. I like to think of this when it comes to cooking. I like cooking, and occasionally I think I make something good. But I’ve hardly moved past the substitution stage–I can follow a recipe, but I struggle to look at the ingredients in my fridge and redefine them.

Most of us react negatively to virtual learning because we only think of it as substitution. In that space, online learning doesn’t show well compared to the classroom. But after teaching virtual classes to high school seniors the last four years, I’ve found this new mode of instruction pushing me towards greater creativity, thoughtfulness, and intentionality both online and in the classroom.

In fact, online learning does a number of things well that high school teachers struggle to achieve in the classroom. In my face-to-face English classes, I struggle to engage with each of my students. Our 55 minute periods move quickly, and while I would love to pause on a discussion question to hear from everyone, I do what I imagine most teachers do: engage with the students who want to engage. Or at least that’s the demeaning conclusion we often draw by contrast about the students who don’t participate: they don’t because they don’t want to. What I’ve discovered is that a silent student isn’t silent because they don’t have anything to offer. They’re silent because I’m failing to engage them.

At the end of my virtual year, students routinely say that if they had taken my class face-to-face they would have sat quietly in the classroom. An interesting question would have been posed, one that they had an opinion on. The teacher would call on the readiest students, and then the class would move on, taking with it the inkling of an answer they never got to pursue. In my virtual class, my students are required to engage, and because I run week-long modules, we’re not bound to 55 minutes. We can hear from everyone. My students walk away feeling sharper in their thinking and their ability to articulate their ideas, and they’ve said as much in year-end reflections.

I originally found this surprising. I had expected what I perceived to be the utilitarian nature of the tool to fully undercut the goodness of the task itself, but the task shone through–learning won the day. Many of my colleagues bemoan the prospect of students completing a week’s worth of work in a few hours. My response to that is to question the validity of the work we ask students to do. When you need to package your instruction in a different mode of delivery, questions of value and of time become important in ways we don’t otherwise consider.

Of my many hopes during this current health crisis, I do hope that teachers get the chance to experiment with a new kind of teaching. In my practice, virtual teaching has been indispensable, and the lessons I’ve learned have fundamentally reshaped my craft. When I first started teaching virtually, I was very much in the Substitution phase. I would post 30-45 minute narrated PowerPoints. Quickly, I realized students weren’t watching them, because why would they? Working with colleagues, I began to Modify, breaking the lecture down into manageable skills and principles, and attaching formative assessments to give students a chance to practice the skill or extend the conversation. I was asking new questions about the value of my teaching, questions I would not have asked if not for virtual teaching. I was Redefining modes of student engagement, assembling a variety of online tools. Through rigorous monitoring, regular assessment, and lots and lots of grading, I found ways to shape my virtual classroom community, to set standards for excellence.

And so when I found myself confronting a face-to-face 7:33 am senior class that would not engage with Hamlet, I used a different tool and began an online discussion. In class, they were reticent. Online, they said amazing things. Profound things. They quoted the text, integrated class conversations, added their own experiences. Who was this class? Where was this vigor all year? Looking at them, one might shake their heads and see the isolation of the individual only capable of thoughtful communication when it’s mediated by technology. And I understand that. Others might see this as a pragmatic shrugging-of-the-shoulders, a giving-in. I see this as using the tools at our disposal to ensure students are learning, making meaning together. Establishing a community of learners today will require us to use different tools to achieve the same ends.

But isn’t this how we always build community? Take this very article, written in isolation on a device, sent across the internet to be read by people who have never met. Can I still hold out the naive hope that not only learning but community might take place? Distance is no overwhelming barrier to knowledge or togetherness. So I say, let’s rally around a chance to try new kinds of learning. And watch with delight as your students’ responses pour in.

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