Virtual Learning: Strengthening Good Habits in Extraordinary Circumstances

How incredible that it has so quickly become almost cliche to say “What interesting times we are living in!” These times are unique. UNICEF now estimates that roughly 95 percent of the world’s students are experiencing a change in education as a result of the current coronavirus. The lucky ones can benefit from distance learning, as opposed to those experiencing an interruption in education. Distance learning is not new, though the technologies available have changed over time, and are undergoing even more rapid development at the time of this writing. The first distance learning models relied on the post-mailing of assignments, work, and feedback back and forth. This evolved through the long-standing “School of the Air” model for teaching children over the radio in the far reaches of Australia to a plethora of online, internet-driven tools today. 

All of these models offer a new way of interacting with teachers and, increasingly, classmates even when one is physically isolated, but the habits and strengths that can be reinforced are some of the best habits for learning in any modality. Students and parents can boost the value of learning by focusing on the opportunities virtual learning provides for developing at least three crucial skills for life: autonomy, accountability, and balance.

An excellent educational experience should always foster autonomy; the ability of learners to chart their own course and to operate independently with increasing levels of self-determination. This can be accelerated through virtual learning. It is undeniable that virtual learning takes a bigger toll on the parents of an elementary student than of an older student. However, even the youngest learners are likely to be more capable of working and learning autonomously than we give them credit for. In the “regular” classroom, teachers are also not sitting one-on-one with each student for extended periods of time, even at the youngest ages. Help your students develop autonomy by nudging them along the path of a learning task or project and then give them the space and time to forge ahead on their own. The journey is just as important as the destination, and probably more important in the long term - even for the oldest students who are driving toward a particular credential. Having said this, check-ins are crucial, and they should be at least two-way, which is where accountability comes into play.

Every young learner, just as importantly as every productive adult, needs a highly developed sense of accountability. Where does that come from? It is developed interpersonally, not imposed. Virtual learning provides an ideal opportunity to develop a highly tuned sense of accountability. Humans are outstanding at gaming systems - trying to get away with things. This is one of the things we do best, and it is partially what has led us to great discoveries, advanced technologies, and increasingly efficient ways of accomplishing tasks. As much as we need to develop autonomy, we need some interaction to help us rein in our gaming of systems to also do things in such a way that everyone around us benefits, not just doing things for our own benefit. This is where accountability comes into play. 

Autonomy and accountability are in a constant push and pull until we develop a sense of how to exercise autonomy, explore our passions, but also keep our promises to those around us and look out for everyone's success. Traditional education models seek to foster this through group projects and regular reporting periods. In the virtual environment, these regular check-ins are even more crucial, even if they are very quick and short. Perhaps you have had the same experience as you have yourself transitioned to working remotely with a team. They should ultimately be checking in with you too - not just waiting to be asked. Build in these short check-ins with your students too, but constantly let them know you are trusting them to be getting the work done and doing the right things. 

So what are the right things? This is the life-long skill of balance. School and learning are important for our future, but so are many other things in life. Some of these “other things” like friendship, camaraderie, emotional control, mindfulness, are potentially more difficult to develop when one is isolated. Students need time to explore new ways to find these outlets. Perhaps it means connecting to their friends online or finding time to read more books, or running around in the backyard with their dog. Focusing on something beyond academics is critical even during traditional school experiences, but it is even more important in virtual learning. Especially when students (and adults for that matter) spend a great deal of time in one physical location, breaking up the day, exploring thinking in areas other than school subjects, and building in physical exercise are all the more important. In the virtual environment, when the schedule no longer drives these opportunities for them, students have the chance to explore and develop the balance they will need to take control of for the rest of their lives, beyond school.

One side effect of this unique time is the uncertainty, anxiety, and fear we may be feeling. These are all real, and they should be acknowledged. But this does not mean we have to dwell on them. The current situation also provides us with unique opportunities, and this depends on how we choose to focus our energies and help our young learners to focus theirs. I hope this entry has given you some food for thought.

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