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Ed Talk: Don’t Let “Zoom” Be Our “Doom”

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Since APS announced its decision to begin this school year 100% remotely, many parents and perhaps students – maybe even a few teachers – have been anticipating a disastrous start, if not a disastrous year.

We’re closing out week two of the distance learning year. Despite some significant technological issues and individual challenges adjusting to the new format, it has not been the initial overarching catastrophe many predicted.

For our family, our first day’s glitches were all rather quickly resolved. Admittedly, our middle schooler is using a personal laptop rather than the school-issued iPad. (Yes, I read your message, Dr. Duran; and I understand that you are encouraging all students to use the APS-issued device. But this time, we’re going rogue. Even if our middle schooler had never experienced the consistent connectivity issues with the iPad over the past two years, we prefer an actual keyboard and a larger screen for working a full year online. But the fact that it’s time APS swapped out middle school iPads for laptops is another discussion.)

While APS’ technology staff continues to manage the logistics of distance learning, the rest of us need to monitor distance learning itself. To that end, APS should immediately establish (yet another) working group or committee to monitor and collect feedback, data, and other information about academic, social, psychological, and technological matters through the duration of this school year.

Teachers, administrators, parents/guardians, students, school psychologists and counselors, and activities directors should all be represented.  A simple and easy way for people to comment and share personal experiences as they occur during the year is essential. The information gathered would guide decisions and improvements as the year progresses, as well as fuel planning and applying  lessons learned for future instruction when teachers and students ultimately return to the classroom full time.

We should strive to learn about such things as:

  • Effectiveness of APS and PTA communications and ways to improve it;
  • Impacts of distance learning on social dynamics and sense of community within and among schools;
  • How to manage the technical aspects of distance learning and teaching;
  • New skills and additional tools for teachers to reach and inspire every single student;
  • Which students are most successful with which methods of learning (online v. in person v. combination), why, and how to provide top quality programs to best serve each beyond the pandemic; and
  • Developing consistency in policies, curriculum, and instruction across schools.

Two particularly valuable lessons may be in the areas of how to excite students about learning, whether in-person or virtual, and the role of technology in education.

To prepare for remote teaching, teachers have had to redesign their curriculum for a whole new format and will hopefully continually improve their skills and techniques over the course of the year.  As my husband attests, teaching a college-level course in a classroom is very different from teaching it online. That phenomenon applies even more so to preschool – 12 education.

It requires different ways of presenting material and new skills for “reading” students, to elicit their participation, to motivate and draw out the best from each one. Mental health professionals face challenges as they meet with patients online where engagement is often lower or in-person with masks which obscure the facial expressions vital to contextualizing and interpreting comments and reactions – things trained professionals rely on in order to help their patients. Teachers use facial cues, student participation, and class behavior in the same way.

This year will offer ongoing opportunities to consider how students learn, what makes a teacher effective, and new ideas for the context of the traditional classroom experience. A major factor in teaching this year – and another key matter for APS and a committee to consider – is the role of educational technology.

The 1:1 personal device and personalized learning initiatives have – from this parent’s perspective – directed focus to the device and online work more than it has enhanced education. There seems to be increased reliance on short assignments and quick assessments; multiple choice v. short answer quizzes or essays; and slide presentations v. composition papers. In math, we’ve seen far less reliance on thoroughly working a volume of problems and an increased tendency to make educated guesses on digital multiple choice formats.

Aspects of these digital tools offer options and variety that serve an array of learners. At the same time, however, the use of technology seems also to have in some ways made learning less interesting or less challenging, instead of more engaging as personalized learning is intended to do. This has perhaps subtly contributed to a lowering of academic skills standards in the process. It is important to remember that technology is merely one teaching tool. “Personalized learning” itself is independent from – and can take place in the absence of – technology.

It did not take long after things shut down to see how critical in-person interactions and social connections are, especially to our youth. And many already recognize a richness to in-person learning that cannot be duplicated or replaced in online or remote platforms. Boredom and isolation take firm root in the absence of others’ physical presence. It is difficult to feed off each others’ energy online and challenging to have the meaningful, in-depth, large group discussions which broaden and deepen the academic quality and experience for both students and teachers.

Therefore, we should be careful not to use any “success” of distance learning this year as justification to rush to online learning as an easy solution to difficult problems in our education system. Zoom and similar platforms have “saved” many of us and much of our economy during this critical time. Yet, through “zoom fatigue” and lower levels of engagement in a virtual format by many people — especially a lot of young people — a loss of true connection is gaining foothold. Over-reliance on it in education will erode an important aspect of the classroom experience.

So, let’s not let accept this as our inevitable new norm. Nor let us allow it to cast doom over our educational system by making it our “go to fix-it tool.” For instance, we should not be quick to implement online learning as a capacity solution or as a means to outsource classes and limit future in-house offerings. Students currently are required to complete at least one online course for graduation. We should be cautious about the potential slippery slope of requiring more.

High quality online classes and distance learning indeed can potentially expand opportunities or provide access to classes available at one school but not another. Online education may better suit some students and specific classes may lend particularly well to a virtual format. But any introduction of broad or permanent online delivery programs must be carefully considered and thoughtfully designed to fit students’ learning styles and needs without sacrificing quality or limiting students’ ability to experience the highest excellence in education.

Two weeks in, I have no idea how successful this year will end up being from an academic perspective.  For now, I’ve chosen not to worry about that. I am far less concerned about the amount of knowledge my children accumulate this year than I am about the academic skills they develop, whether they find enthusiasm for learning, and their character growth.

In terms of our school system, let’s use this time effectively to strengthen weaknesses and find real solutions to problems.  Let’s judiciously develop and employ truly effective educational technology. Consistently. Across all schools. At every level. For every student.

A committee studying all aspects of this school year, from academic to socioemotional, can be key in keeping us focused, diligent, and moving forward together to a better and more successful educational program for all of our kids.

Maura McMahon is the mother of two children in Arlington Public Schools. An Arlington resident since 2001, McMahon has been active in a range of County and school issues. She has served on the Thomas Jefferson, South Arlington, and Career Center working groups and is the former president of the Arlington County Council of PTAs.

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