All I Learned Online in the Pandemic

By Swara Narayanan

It was a few days before March Break 2020 in Ontario. A hurried announcement on a Thursday morning on March 12th, 2020 confirmed that schools were in for an extended break starting the following Monday. And that was the last time many students across Ontario received traditional “in-person” instruction in a classroom. Imagine that!

The pandemic has inevitably led to remote-learning for months on end for many students. Tens of thousands of Ontario students opted in to learn virtually from home this Fall- and with varying degrees of success. The challenges range from reliable access to technology, availability of learning support at home, teachers having to navigate online teaching and tools and ultimately, student engagement in a virtual setting. Many school districts have worked hard to close the accessibility gap (still a work in progress), re-imagined online teaching and provided additional training and support for their teachers, but can remote-learning truly replace in-class instruction? 

Perhaps the question we should be asking is, “What can make remote-learning as effective as in-class instruction as we know it?”

A school bus drives down a snow covered rural country road lined with snow covered trees after a snow storm during the winter season

Enter the world of ed-tech tools. 

2020 has been synonymous with Zoom meetings. Students have also been learning on Zoom, Google Meet, Teams and similar platforms. Other than education-related productivity tools for meetings, accessing lessons and submitting assignments and system-wide learning management systems or LMSs, there exists a slew of online educational content from self-paced math lessons, videos explaining scientific phenomena, self-grading assessments and much more for K-12 students (Kindergarten to Grade 12). Some resources are priced at a fee, others are free. Some are provided by school districts, others are sought after by teachers. It’s a cluttered place for those who know it, overwhelming for those trying to adopt it, and yet it is a space with tons of  untapped potential for those who haven’t ventured in it. In my experience, there are far too many in the latter category. The demand for online tools to make teaching more engaging and learning self-directed by students has increased exponentially since March 2020 but putting aside the investment into ed-tech and the future projections of the industry itself, a tool is only as good as the hands that wield it. 

Are students just listening to their teacher “teach” on a Zoom call for 5 hours, like they would in a traditional classroom? Or is that virtual learning augmented with interactive online modules, space for student collaboration and discovery projects enabled through innovative ed-tech solutions? That is the precise difference between logging into a virtual class and truly participating in a virtual class. 

Not a silver-bullet. 

There is no perfect solution to the conundrum of making virtual learning as effective as in-person learning. March 2020‘s lockdown offered an abrupt move to virtual learning arenas for many families, students and teachers. From what we have seen so far, the e-learning technology is either “there” or “getting there”; resources exist– and will only keep getting better, and the need for it is very much there. However, the mindset and shift to how we leverage these resources matter. It’s not just about delivering the “chalk and talk” lessons virtually, and it’s certainly not about logging into your teacher’s synchronous class at 9 AM everyday and turning off your camera to browse on the computer. Online learning is here to stay, so let’s do it right and make it effective. There is something to be said about giving everyone some grace during these tough times, but let that not stop us from pivoting quicker, and embracing new ideas of teaching and accelerating learning. If there is one thing learning online through the pandemic has taught me, it’s that the knowledge you gain depends on your willingness to learn. 

Swara Narayanan is the Senior Director of Online Learning at EVERFI, Canada.

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