Learning in a Virtual World

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Illustration of a high school student learning at a computer

This article is part of a multi-part series examining the unique virtual learning challenges and opportunities many parents, teachers, and students face in the age of COVID-19. Learn more about our research methodology and key findings here.

I don’t want to repeat the platitudes we’ve all heard about COVID-19 causing strange and unprecedented times, but it’s impossible not to when it comes to education. Amongst the disarray of lockdown, ever-changing rules, and fear of infection, the education vertical has been one of the hardest hit during this pandemic.

Students have lost out on growth opportunities, many during their most formative years. Parents have had to balance working from home, being furloughed, or losing daycare while jumping into the specialist role of teaching assistants or tutors. Finally, teachers have had to adjust their curricula to online learning and figure out how to provide an appropriate level of education to their students.

For the past few weeks, we’ve had the opportunity to hear about distance learning from parents and carers of students, college instructors or professors, school teachers, and a few students themselves.

Methodology

To broaden our knowledge about learning in a virtual world, we interviewed three students, five parents, and two teachers / instructors and ran a survey with 53 participants across those same criteria. Our participants were in a variety of locations such as California, Texas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Georgia, and Connecticut.

The breadth of participants allowed us to capture a wide view of peoples’ differing experiences, from teachers working in low-socioeconomic school districts to juniors in high school studying multiple AP classes autonomously.

We asked each participant a series of questions to help us understand how their lives had changed since their schools were closed in March 2020. Our questions covered their personal background, how education has changed, their daily routines, what kind of software or online resources students and teachers used, and how well remote learning worked for them.

This article outlines some of what we discovered about the impact of remote education on students who switched to learning from home.

Home Life & Personal Changes

I don’t feel like [schoolwork] matters, because I’m just at my kitchen table.

We found the virtual learning model had a significant impact on home and personal life. Parents and students have lost a lot of freedoms and agency in their daily lives, and many people are struggling to differentiate between school life and home life.

Having an area dedicated to work or education — that is separated from an area of relaxation — is a privilege not afforded to many. One student stated ‘I don’t feel like [schoolwork] matters, because I’m just at my kitchen table.’

In fact, we found that some students lost out on more than a physical classroom. They also lost access to the tools they needed for education, and a place where they were safe and happy. An elementary school teacher in Texas shared stories about students who did not have the devices or connectivity they needed to do schoolwork at home. Those same students also struggled to find respite in outdoor activities because it was dangerous for them to go outdoors.

Even before the pandemic, some students faced circumstances outside of their control and chose to attend colleges that were close to their families to help at home. We heard this from a college instructor who told us about one of her students who turned down some of the best colleges in the country to go to community college so she could stay home to care for her brothers and sisters.

When the college closed down in response to the pandemic, the student had lost her ability to do schoolwork. She didn’t have a laptop or an internet connection at home. Fortunately, her school was able to intervene and provide her with what she needed to do the work, but not every school district is as well-equipped as this one.

Socializing

The majority of people we spoke to said that the largest struggle with distance learning was the inability to socialize in person. We were consistently told that students missed being in a classroom with other kids or chatting with their friends.

While some teachers are running classes via Google Classroom or Zoom, students typically feel a sense of awkwardness when video chatting with people, so the typical classroom experience of socialization is not being replaced here.

Children who have access to devices and internet connections have defaulted to video calling and multiplayer video games to socialize with friends. This helps them speak to their friends and have a creative outlet with games like Minecraft and Roblox, but some parents are concerned about ensuring the safety of their children online.

As previously mentioned, there are many children without access to the internet or devices that would allow them to speak to their friends, so they have essentially been indoors since March. This is concerning for younger children who lack the executive functions available to grow, with one concerned teacher noting that a student is noticeably ‘regressing’ from a second grade level to a kindergarten level and is sleeping with stuffed animals for the first time in years.

Discipline and Routine

It wasn’t a surprise to hear that students are easily distracted at home when everyone is easily distracted anywhere. Many children see home as the place where they can relax and many parents use ‘screen time’ as a reward for good behavior or a daily allowance.

The allure of video games, YouTube unboxing videos, TikTok, or other things is too much for children when they’re on a screen already, and it’s becoming a difficult balance to ensure children are paying attention to their teacher or doing schoolwork. For parents, it’s challenging to monitor your child at all times, and it’s impossible for teachers to see what a student is doing or kick a student out of the virtual classroom for bad behavior.

Without forcing spyware onto students’ devices, it’s impossible to administer quizzes or tests without the heightened possibility of the student cheating on the test. To counter this, some schools have canceled all final tests and based the end-of-year results on existing grades.

Some students we spoke to were working hard on their education, and expressed frustration about other children who didn’t show up, weren’t paying attention, or just being disruptive to others.

During a regular year, school-aged children might go to summer camp, receive reading lists, or be provided with schoolwork to do over the summer – this is no longer the case. Parents are going to miss out on the usual summer respite they look forward to and need to entertain bored kids over a long summer break.

The Learning Experience

Education has been placed on hold for many pre-college students. Some teachers had the impossible task of adapting their curricula to online learning overnight, while other school districts simply told teachers not to spend time modifying their lesson plans. The result has been the introduction of ‘busy-work’ for students in our group of participants, with few new concepts being taught. Most schools have even stopped grading students.

The students we spoke to during interviews all felt that their quality of education has decreased since lockdown. Parents and teachers both agree with this sentiment.

The most engaging remote digital education experiences were:

  • 1-on-1s with teachers, allowing the students to ask questions or get work directly.
  • Videos recorded by teachers who shared new, interesting concepts.
  • Live lectures to replicate the classroom experience.
  • Anything interactive such as learning games, creating audio clips, or sharing photographs.

A second-grade teacher we spoke to noticed that some of her children enjoyed asynchronous, offline classwork more as it meant being away from complex screens and gave them an opportunity to work on something, take a photograph of it, then upload it. This same thought was echoed by a student we interviewed.

Education Software

We heard mixed reviews from our participants when it came to the quality, usability, and effectiveness of e-learning tools. While some educational software felt outdated or challenging to use, web apps like SeeSaw were mentioned in a positive light. The application enables teachers to schedule and share classwork with students, lets students submit completed assignments, and tracks progress for parents and teachers. SeeSaw even has a community / commons section that provides training for teachers who want to work on distance learning, and curricula for different subjects.

Too Many Notifications

Decisions from school leaders and across school boards are constantly changing, with emails and text messages being sent out to parents and teachers every time a change is made. Parents cannot opt out of this communication and it quickly turned into white noise putting families at risk of missing potentially essential information.

Supporting Students, Parents, and Teachers

With school closures came the breakdown of many support systems for parents, teachers, and students. Prior to their closures, schools and daycare provided children with critical growth and education opportunities, and gave parents time to earn money or perform parental duties. The social isolation brought on by the pandemic also meant friends and family could no longer be relied on for help with schooling or childcare.

The CARES Act provided some parents with a brief moment of pause, knowing their jobs were safe while they could focus on their childrens’ education, but others had to choose between supporting their children or continuing to earn a living.

For many, there was an unspoken expectation that parents had to become teaching assistants during school closures, yet they weren’t offered support from school districts to help them be more effective. This was okay for parents of older children who typically needed less help through the day (15-60 minutes on average), but parents of younger children often had to spend over four hours a day helping their children.

We heard impactful stories about parents balancing it all. One teacher told us about a parent who was juggling a job as an essential worker while caring for her five children. Following an eight-hour workday, she would come home and help each of her children individually with schoolwork for different grades, using different applications.

The teacher went above and beyond to provide support, offering telephone guidance, but that was only for one of the children in the household. The parent found it challenging to master so many tools and expressed that her family needed school to finish.

From the students’ perspective, the main frustration shared was the lack of access to educators. In class, they were able to raise their hand or stop by a teacher’s desk to ask a question – without a direct line to teachers as and when the help is needed, the support isn’t happening. Some teachers offer weekly ‘ask me anything’ sessions, but by the time they take place, school assignments may have already been submitted without the student getting the support they needed.

Fulfilling the EdTech Need

Switching to distance learning has been a distressing experience for almost everyone we interviewed and surveyed. Students, parents, and teachers all felt unprepared for the quick change in March 2020, and very few were able to adapt to the “new normal.”

Even if there wasn’t a huge disparity in quality of education and accessibility of the tools required to learn, having a space dedicated to learning, and being able to socialize with peers and educators in person is irreplaceable. This is especially true for younger, less independent learners and those in disadvantaged households.

If we could ensure a more equitable educational environment for everyone, distance learning could be effective in the future. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that people are dissatisfied with virtual learning in its current state.

When we look at the current remote learning landscape, we see an opportunity (and need) to create better digital learning experiences for all. Progressive Web Applications (PWAs) have the potential to deliver distance learning that is comparable to being in a physical classroom.

With PWAs, edtech providers can build / update solutions more quickly to adapt to evolving classroom needs in a world shaped by COVID-19, deliver more consistent experiences for the array of devices families and educators use, and address inequities in internet connectivity by working in low latency environments.

As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of all invention.” There is a clear need to create more compelling ways of learning for children of all ages, 1-on-1 engagement opportunities with teachers, and ways for children to safely socialize with friends.

Connect with our team of digital product innovators to create the next-generation of edtech solutions. Let’s revolutionize learning for all.

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