Well, 2020 has certainly been a wild year, though I suppose that’s putting it mildly. In addition to the challenges of working from home, job losses, health concerns, changing family dynamics, civil unrest, and the whole other slew of things that 2020 has thrown at us, parents are also finding themselves in a unique position of helping their children navigate virtual learning. As we enter 2021, I wanted to put down some thoughts I’ve collected about how to make the most of virtual education.
Over the past year, I’ve been helping my students overcome the difficulties of online school, helping manage learning clusters, and in some cases, helping parents make the transition to homeschooling entirely. Through this time, I’ve noticed some common challenges that my students have faced. Here’s a list of the most common ones that apply to students between k-12, and my thoughts on some potential solutions for some of these issues.
At most school districts (NYC included), virtual learning has been a complete disaster. It’s wildly inconsistent from one teacher to the next, and from one school to the next.
It’s not surprising, considering that teacher and administrator training was never really designed to deal with the sudden shift to online learning in the midst of a global pandemic. Teachers are trained in methods to engage students in person, and the curriculums they have spent their careers building are entirely catered to a classroom environment. However, having had the summer to sort things out, I hoped that most schools would have improved their online and hybrid learning platforms from what they were last winter and spring. Unfortunately, I (and my students!) have been sorely disappointed.
Most schools are using platforms like Google Classroom, Zoom, and other video platforms to manage their online learning. However, there is very little consistency in what type of material is posted (topical youtube videos, written worksheets only, recordings of teacher, etc.), which classes have video meetings, and where/when the material is posted.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to force teachers and administrators to get organized. In some cases, the best you can do is to have your student debrief you daily on which teachers are assigning what, and for you to familiarize yourself with the online learning platforms. If you see any obvious areas of concern, such as a teacher posting quizzes on material that wasn’t taught, posting unfairly short deadlines, or just not posting new material at all, you should email the teacher to ask for clarification. This builds a paper trail, so that in the event of unfair grading, you can prove that you and your child did your part to try and rectify the situation.
Students have to navigate the environment of learning on the computer without being distracted by entertainment.
When I was in high school, we weren’t given school laptops or allowed any electronics in school. We used computers to type up assignments or do research, but we never had to really spend any significant amount of time learning virtually. When I attended college and was able to bring my laptop to class to take notes, I found it incredibly distracting. I could half-listen to the professor, while taking notes in one tab and browsing the internet in another. The quality of my learning suffered, until I figured out how to show some self-restraint and only use my laptop to actually do schoolwork in class. It was a difficult challenge for me to overcome, even as an adult in a university setting. It’s even more to ask of an elementary school, middle school, or high school student.
If your child is struggling with appropriately managing their focus while using the computer, you can help them by using parental control software. If possible, I recommend bringing your child into the conversation as well—they can help build their own schedule, and pick which hours they won’t be able to access entertainment, and which hours they will focus on school. They should still have some access to leisure activities on the computer, but certainly not when they’re supposed to be doing virtual learning. Scheduling time where they are only allowed to use the computer for learning (and separate time when they are allowed to use the computer for recreation) can help them achieve a balance.
Students are now expected to responsibly manage their learning schedules at a much younger age than they were before.
When I first attended college, I was shocked by the amount of my classmates who had been in the top 10% of their class, many of them valedictorians. But, after the first year of college, an astounding number of them were earning C’s and below, with many of them dropping out altogether.
In high school, many students have schedules that are very rigid, with lots of parental involvement in managing their activities. But in college, where attendance isn’t taken and you can pick your own schedule, the rigid routine that had kept my classmates successful just fell apart. Many of them stayed up all night socializing or playing video games, and skipped class.
Granted, learning from your parent’s house isn’t quite the same as being on a college campus, but the responsibility and personal agency required can be similar—especially when the parents have their own work to do.
Over the past year, I’ve seen a number of intermediate and high school classes that have some combination of not taking attendance, not grading student work, they don’t post new material, don’t monitor student progress and alert parents if a child is falling behind, and don’t have a clear benchmark for what a student needs to achieve for a good grade. Many classes essentially become self-taught, with no clear goal for how much to learn. And many of these classes are at very highly ranked NYC public schools, no less. This is incredibly difficult for students to navigate.
There’s not really an easy solution to this, as a lot of the onus is on the teachers. But you can help your children make the best of the situation by ensuring that they have a learning environment that sets them up for success.
Help your child build a consistent schedule that is dedicated to school work. Whether that’s in the morning, afternoon, or evening doesn’t matter. What matters is that the weekly schedule is consistent, as learning thrives under routine. Have a distraction-free environment set up, ideally in the same place every day. If you go to the same environment to study every time (and don’t do other activities in the same place), you’ll typically have better focus. For example, if your child typically relaxes on the sofa with the laptop to play a video game, they are more likely to get distracted if they sit on the sofa with the laptop for school. It’s better to have them sit at the table or a desk for schoolwork.
Ask your child to keep you in the loop with their teachers, and how virtual learning is going. If you see obvious areas where the learning environment is unclear or confusing, encourage your child to send emails to their teachers to ask for clarification (or help them do it if they need it).
Help your child set up a planner, calendar, or their preferred scheduling app to keep track of assignment due dates. Check in with them frequently to help them keep on top of their schedule if they are having trouble with it.
Technological difficulties make digital learning difficult for many students.
Video chat software often requires a lot of computing power. Even many rather new, powerful laptops have trouble running Zoom. When getting a new computer isn’t in the cards (or budget), there are things you can do to help your child’s current machine run smoothly.
If the wifi connection isn’t good, make sure nothing unnecessary is using the internet. If your child is on a Zoom meeting while their older sibling is streaming a TV show, the Zoom connection may be laggy because of it. Sometimes, even stopping the video of the Zoom is enough to keep the audio connection going.
First, close all other programs that aren’t being used. A lot of times, students might have a ton of applications open—Video Chat programs, photo editing software, movie editing programs, music players, internet browsers, video games, etc. A computer only has so much processing power and RAM, and programs have to share it when they run. Closing everything that you’re not actively using will free up resources so that the educational software can run better.
If that doesn’t work, try clearing up space on the hard drive. If your hard drive is full, the computer will run more slowly. Delete old downloads, and get rid of files you don’t need any more. The biggest space-eaters are typically videos, photos, and video games.
If that doesn’t work, you can go nuclear. Make a backup of the computer, and then completely reinstall the computer’s operating system with a full hard drive wipe. This will erase all data on the computer, so it’s essential to back up everything that was on it. This essentially forces you to do the previous two steps, and is kind of like a spring cleaning. You can then add back the important files and reinstall the essential programs, and keep everything else on the backup drive.
Outside of problems with computers running educational software, there are other difficulties that present with a virtual learning environment. One is that it’s often harder to type up assignments than to write them. Many students aren’t comfortable with typing on a keyboard, since they’re used to typing on their phones or tablets. And writing with a mouse is cumbersome and messy.
However, there are programs and hardware that can mediate this issue.
Typing games are good practice for learning touch-typing, but I’ve found that the best motivator for kids is to use the computer for chatting with their friends. If you can sync their text messages to the computer (such as by using apple’s Messages with the same account an iPhone uses), your child can get lots of practice typing things they actually care about—(which isn’t their school essay!)
If you have a tablet with a stylus (such as an iPad with apple pencil, or even a tablet laptop), you can take notes directly on the screen.
If you’re using a desktop computer, one incredibly useful piece of hardware is a digitizing tablet, such as the Wacom Tablet. It’s kind of like a giant mousepad that allows someone to control the mouse with a pen instead of their finger of an actual mouse. Initially, they were primarily used by graphic designers and other digital artists, but they are fantastic for virtual learning. Students can use the Zoom annotate function to handwrite out their work on a screen share, a pdf, or a digital whiteboard. They can use software like Microsoft OneNote to handwrite over powerpoint slides or PDFs. And it also works very well as a normal mouse.
And speaking of Microsoft OneNote, it’s a fantastic piece of free software that makes digital note taking and classwork organization very easy. It has an intuitive feel, and students can organize all their downloaded notes, homework assignments, and other material much like they would in a binder. And as I mentioned before, the software makes it very easy to take handwritten notes over the files.
With many aspects of children’s daily routine missing, it’s difficult for them to focus.
People, especially children, thrive on routine. There’s a time and a place for everything—breakfast, then school, then sports, then homework, then playtime, then bed. With remote learning, everything is up in the air, and there usually isn’t a consistent schedule from one day to the next. Blended learning schedules are also often inconsistent, and vary wildly from week to week.
Doing what you can to build a consistent schedule will vastly improve focus. Even if online learning has a flexible schedule, encourage your kids to spend the same hours each day working. Try to set consistent meal times, and schedule in time to exercise and to wind down. Eventually, your child’s mind and body will adapt to the schedule, and they will find themselves automatically entering a more focused mindset when the clock hits “time to study,” whenever that may be.
Having scheduled leisure activities is also a great way to improve motivation. An online exercise class, an online art class, or even Friday board game nights with the family can all help build a sense of normalcy and routine.
With many coping mechanisms and sources of stress relief gone, mental health suffers.
When people are stressed out, they tend to look towards outside coping mechanisms. Being able to get out and away from a situation is a big part of that. Playing sports with friends, going to see a movie, going to the mall, having a play date, going to an after school club is a big part of that. In addition, the typical motivators that people look forward to, such as an upcoming vacation, birthday party, or social event, are all gone. It’s hard to use the promise of Spring Break to push through finals when “Spring Break” is being trapped in your apartment with your parents (again.)
Evaluate the coping mechanisms your child usually turns to when stressed, and try to find a way to safely replace them. If your child typically turns to socializing with friends when stressed, putting together an online chat server (such as on Discord), or building a social bubble where a small group of families only socialize with each other (outside of necessities), can safely help your child find a social outlet.
If your child typically uses a sport for a stress outlet, find a type of exercise that can safely be done. Tennis is a great, socially distant, contact-free sport that still uses teamwork. Going for a bike ride or a jog in the park can also fill the exercise need without close contact to others. A good motivator is to pick a goal—say, to run a 5K or to be able to bike 50 miles in a day.
Try to find online replacements for group activities. A group of friends can all chip in a few dollars a month for a group Minecraft server, where they can build things together. There are many online games that allow friends to play together—from MMOs to Online Chess.
Creative outlets are a fantastic way to reduce stress. Encourage your child to pick up a creative hobby, such as an art class, story writing, sculpting, crocheting, or a musical instrument. Even writing a daily journal is a great exercise for kids to collect their thoughts and process their emotions.
And most importantly, recognize if your child is showing signs of depression and anxiety that could benefit from professional help. I have seen so many typically happy children develop signs of anxiety and depression during the pandemic, and many of them have immensely benefited from sessions with an online therapist. Sometimes, kids need to feel like they have someone else to talk to besides their parents, and it might be easier for them to articulate and work through their feelings with an unbiased third party listener. If your child would benefit from talking to a therapist, it doesn’t mean you did anything wrong as a parent. These are unprecedented times, and sometimes that calls for new approaches to helping kids articulate what they’re going through. It will almost certainly help their schoolwork too.