Lantz Hall, Massanutten Military Academy, Woodstock, Virginia
As students and teachers everywhere adapt to the virtual classroom, I often wonder how this transition affects the individual and collective educational process. I asked a relative of mine, Christina Blakely, whose ninth through twelfth grade history classes are now instructed through Canvas, for feedback from herself and her students. What are some benefits to learning online, and what are the difficulties? How well does the learning experience of the classroom translate when moved online? What aspects of the digital classroom do we hope to take with us when we go back to school?
Teacher Pros & Cons
From a teacher's perspective, Christina says that "nothing takes the place of one to one with students, but Canvas does allow us to hear and see students in the conference, which is better than just sending work out and having [it] sent back."
On a typical day in her physical classroom, Christina applies collaborative group work to help make learning about historical events, figures, and their effects on culture and society, fun and creative. She contextualizes lesson plans with era-specific art, film, literature and music, and assigns group projects where students create and present their own original poems, songs, games, plays, or artwork to demonstrate their understanding of historical and current events. This helps students digest the material with a more personal, empathetic, and hands on approach, as opposed to being limited to the sometimes mundane and repetitive process of memorizing dates, names, and facts- especially in cases where reading is not every student's strongest skill. For now however, supplementing the reading material and lectures with power point presentations, documents, movies, visual resources, and other media uploaded to Canvas helps keep classes interesting although it's only a fraction of how they are typically engaged. "It allows us to be more interactive and use materials we wouldn't [normally] be [able to] in the [physical] classroom" she explains.
Other challenges of the switch to Canvas include sitting in front of a computer all day, which Christina says "is particularly taxing", as well as tardiness; "Sometimes I have started class and students pop in late and that makes it hard because you have to go back and explain [the same thing] several times." Canvas offers the ability to record each lesson, a feature which serves as a double edged sword. Students who were absent can later watch a video recording of the class, while students who did attend can go back and replay the video for better clarification. On the other hand, having the option to not attend a class in real time lends itself to inconsistent attendance, distracted focus, and a lack of motivation.
Christina cites the expansion of her educational tools and broadening her technique as a major positive of this current evolution. Supplementing articles, texts, news, webinars, and other content from a resource called Newslea allows her to mix up her lesson plans, encourage discussion around current events, and helps her students research for assignments and papers. Her favorite feature of Newslea is the ability to narrow the search results by reading level, grade level, or class subject or topic, helping both teachers and students easily browse the site's vast collection of various resources and publications.
Student Pros & Cons
Christina took a poll from each class to identify their least and most favorite parts of digital learning. An obvious downside is the elimination of typical activities like sports, clubs, lunch, seeing friends, and other social aspects of school that break up the day to day monotony of sitting in a classroom. Now that classes are concentrated into hours-long blocks of time sitting at a computer, difficulties concentrating or feeling motivated is a common issue experienced by many.
For others, having classes limited to certain hours of the day and only lasting as long as necessary (the school day begins at 11am and ends at 4pm each weekday) is a major plus. Another positive comment from some was not being able to "play around on their laptop all day", revealing how consolidating the school day into only what is necessary helps provide a structured balance between work and play.
The results of her poll show that 72% of her students dislike using Canvas (though this could include simply not enjoying school at all), and 28% said it "is okay". Overall, students agreed that "for being online, and for not being able to come to school, it's pretty good and easy to use." Most complaints from students were regarding Canvas itself, citing issues such as not receiving notifications about homework or other updates, sessions timing out resulting in having trouble logging into class, problems uploading assignments, and other technical roadblocks within the app. Many students agreed that "lack of technical knowledge amongst staff" is a source of frustration.
A common theme emboldened in both parties' accounts is how limiting the lack of physical connection has proven to be. Being able to hear and see each other when communicating ideas, collaborating on projects or discussing complex themes in the classroom is a crucial element in how we learn, teach, and understand each other and process information. Based on what was gathered from this feedback, it seems as though maintaining a more concise school day, recording classes, providing more technical support and training for teachers, and having more open access to digital academic resources could combine the best of both worlds when schools reopen. Perhaps the ideal future of a typical school day includes the flexibility that e-learning demands mixed with what remote learning can never replace- learning from one another and sharing an experience in real time.
Discuss in the comments:
What are some helpful tips for students and teachers using Canvas? What skills and methods have been effective in your virtual classroom? How can we encourage more structure and connection? How can we as educators make the overall process better, right now and when we return to school?