Captain’s Log, Stardate 73729.2. We have entered the first vacation phase of our journey into COVID-19 Distance Learning. Our initial observations indicate that this hiatus comes at a most opportune time. Who would have predicted our need for April vacation just two weeks after our journey began?
Okay, so my Star Trek-inspired introduction is corny, and I’ve never been a Trekkie. But this recent conversion to 100% home-based education certainly feels like we’re “boldly going where no [person] has gone before.”
Put simply, these past two weeks have been eye-opening for a teacher who has spent his entire three-decade career working in a classroom full of physically present students. I knew distance learning would be different. But even a mere two weeks have revealed certain realities I did not foresee.
So in the spirit of Star Trek, I offer these preliminary observations of my maiden voyage into Distance Learning Land, the (final?) frontier.
I’m what you might call a “kinesthetic teacher.” I like moving around in the classroom while I teach. I’ve been known to do handstands as part of a lesson. (That’s a story for another time.) So you would think sitting down all day in front of a laptop might not require as much energy. Au contraire.
Maybe it’s the sustained mental focus, or the eye strain, or the incessant emails and messaging all day long. Or maybe it’s a combination of all of the above. Regardless, I am absolutely beat after a day of teaching online lessons. And it’s not any better for students. Or parents.
“I’m just crying,” writes NY Post columnist Karol Markowicz. “It turns out distance learning is nothing like my cozy little homeschool program. Now there is a constant barrage of links, passwords, Google classroom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom. It’s too much: We get messages from their music teachers, their art teachers, librarians, even their gym teachers.”
We’re all giving it everything we’ve got. It just seems that sometimes, it’s not enough.
The first two weeks of distance learning have been an education in the Google Classroom computer platform. The learning curve has been steep for this digital immigrant, but my goal is to flatten that curve as quickly as possible.
Google Classroom includes a variety of functions that enhance the educational process, including Google Meet, a video-conferencing app by which groups of people
– including entire classes – can congregate electronically. My exposure to the platform has been via department meetings, but I have yet to use it for “class sessions” with my students because, quite frankly, I’m concerned that it could open a Pandora’s box of sorts.
Such was the case with school districts using another video-conferencing app, Zoom, which saw incidents of uninvited hackers intruding on classroom sessions and harassing students and teachers. What’s more, Zoom’s questionable use of student data has alarmed many, including U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal.
“Zoom states that it ‘does use certain standard advertising tools on our marketing sites which, provided you have allowed it in your cookie preferences, sends personal data to the tool providers, such as Google’,” wrote Blumenthal in a letter to Zoom CEO Eric S. Yuan. “Parents, patients, and families should not have to worry that their children’s information, their health condition, or their private discussions are being used for advertising and other unintended purposes.”
I shouldn’t have to worry either because I’m an English teacher, not a computer engineer.
While online education has presented new possibilities in learning, it will never replace face-to-face interactions with students.
The most obvious shortcoming is distance learning’s deficiencies vis-à-vis special education. The $2 trillion coronavirus stabilization bill, for example, includes a troubling provision that waives portions of special-education law during the pandemic.
“Students who qualify can have moderate to severe disabilities and require a range of support, such as tutoring and behavioral assistance, hands-on services like physical and occupational therapy, and specialized staff,” reports the New York Times. “Such services are critical for school districts to comply with IDEA’s mandate that students with special needs receive an education comparable to that of their peers.”
While none of my students requires hands-on services, working with those who need other accommodations can be a challenge, requiring seemingly endless electronic communication with students and special-education teachers. Even so, such strategies will never replace sitting down with a student and working through assignments together. Ever. That would be highly illogical.
So thank goodness for April vacation, a much-needed respite from electronic-education overload. It allows everyone in my school district to relax, reflect and reboot (irony intended). Still, I do believe everything will work out in the end. As much as I want to escape from distance learning at times – “Beam me up, Scotty!” – I believe this will all work out in the end. After all, “resistance is futile.”
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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