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The Future of Virtual Learning

The year 2020 may have included several events that provided catalysts for change, but no matter what happens from here on out on a national or global scale, the so-called “Before Times” are never coming back as we knew them. As an illustration of change, who ever thought that so many kids of all ages would be so relieved to enter school buildings once more? Over the past two months, I have witnessed the joyful return of many teachers and students to in-person instruction. Nearly everyone I see is more than happy to be away from Zoom. With schools returning to business as usual (or getting closer, anyway), we may think or at least hope that virtual learning is behind us. However, there are certain situations that will still call for our presence in Brady Bunch-style Zoom squares as we foray into the future. And who knows? Maybe we will wind up being grateful for distance learning options. Here are just a few ways that virtual learning will transition into next year and beyond.

Snow Days...or Not?

When Zoom became a continuing reality for most of us this past school year, most children (and teachers, let’s be real) in America had the same question: will we still have snow days? Rather than put the kibosh on all snow days, many districts have opted to provide a limited number of traditional snow days each year and then implement virtual instruction if extreme weather necessitates the closing of physical classrooms. While we may moan and groan about the periodic return of online learning, think about how many days in June will no longer have to be added to the school calendar in blizzard-heavy years. Rather than get rid of snow days altogether, a more balanced approach can accomplish the dual goal of celebrating traditional norms while maintaining a school calendar that ends at its designated time.

Attendance Alternatives           

I have taught several students who need to be absent long term for what is sometimes called “home and hospital” instruction. These students might have broken limbs, or have suffered concussions, or (in more dire circumstances) be coping with serious illness. In any event, I have always needed to communicate with these students via email or phone, and the results are often less than ideal. Where possible, Zoom offers a better solution with a concurrent or hybrid instructional model. Students who cannot attend class for a stretch of time can beam into the classroom and do the same work their peers are doing. Will it be flawless? Absolutely not, nor should we expect that. However, the ubiquity of online learning platforms gives us far more to work with than we had prior to 2020 when students would struggle at home or in the hospital with course content, often on their own. This way, we can have the dual benefit of maintaining relationships and continuing to instruct our students who cannot come to school in person.

Learning Accommodations           

We have all read articles over this past year that lament the results of virtual instruction, but we have not seen much about the many students who have benefited from this new way of learning. Not all of us learn the same way, nor should we. Some students work better online, whether because of psychological factors or specific academic needs. If we can continue to serve students who do better online, why wouldn’t we? Next year, some school systems will be implementing virtual learning options, from a virtual “school” setting for selected applicants to a continued concurrent model in classrooms where teachers are particularly effective at conducting both remote and in-person learning at the same time. With these options in play, we can reach more students with increased effectiveness as we recognize that the existence of remote learning helped some kids, and that we can continue building upon what we know to be working.           

With our increasingly brief attention spans and a desire for instant gratification, many of us have a habit of moving quickly to whatever “next thing” presents itself. Nearly all of us are eager to put the past year behind us as fast as we possibly can and move back into what we consider to be normal. However, there really is no way to do that. We cannot go back to exactly the way things were, nor should we desire that. We have all changed over the past year, whether we wanted to or not. Instead, we should think about what virtual learning achieved that is worthy of holding onto, from specific digital tools we might have used in our individual classrooms to larger benefits that apply to all of us. Then, we can move forward with the best that this past year had to offer and with the knowledge that even through our struggles, we have the ability to come out stronger and readier to meet a wide variety of student needs.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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