The most repeated word of the pandemic may very well be “challenges,” in that it has affected every aspect of our lives: personally, professionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. While every person has dealt with struggles in some capacity, and especially with our healthcare heroes facing seemingly insurmountable demands, it is the educators who also have been tested beyond expectations. Between no face-to-face learning for some teachers at all this year, to crazy hybrid days that provide little consistency, to targeted shutdowns that have pushed instructors to their limits in transitions, to overall technological challenges, it is no wonder that the question pertaining to equitable virtual learning has become a focal point.
Challenges to Providing Equitable Learning Opportunities Virtually
Certainly, one of the most challenging aspects is the physical and mental drain placed on teachers to meet the requirements of their jobs. Preparing for transitions between mediums, constantly changing lessons depending on the delivery mode, and still attempting to collaborate or grow professionally prevents students from receiving potentially stronger learning usually in place from face-to-face instruction.
By far one of the most vital aspects of equal virtual opportunities is connectivity across the nation. While millions of dollars are currently being poured into that area, there still remains a vast inequitability between those who can connect to the internet and those rurally who have no way to do so, thus creating numerous situations with one-dimensional learning packets or reactive learning cases. Eliminating the virtual learning platform because there is no internet capability, yet maintaining the requirement for equal education among all students, is a terrific demand for education.
With this limitation in connectivity, the chances of “learning loss” are greater than ever. While the typical “summer slide” of forgotten information was previously a norm, the idea that millions of students who are not receiving access to relevant and rigorous pedagogical strategies from teachers is beyond challenging to overcome. It is one of the single greatest challenges for the profession to address in upcoming years.
Strategies for Promoting Equitable Virtual Learning Opportunities
With the virtual platform dominating the year, one simply strategy is to give each student a voice in sharing their experiences and making connections with teachers. Students have been limited in their social interactions. As a bellringer, real discussions about topics in their lives can make this pandemic struggle much easier for students. There is no need to sugarcoat life, but allowing them to journal or partner share is a great tool for them to process what is occurring and mitigate. And students sometimes feel more comfortable sharing online rather than in person in the classroom. Plus, with mute capabilities on Zoom or Google Classroom, educators can control these discussions.
Begin building in more appealing synchronous and asynchronous moments for students. Just like in their classes, too much time spent on certain activities can cause students to lose focus. By providing more independent learning requirements, this opens up time for the instructor to engage with the student and do formative assessment, which will allow for adjustments for students’ needs. This should not simply incorporate a worksheet or a quick completion guide. The idea is to get students to apply a skill and it can be a multi-tiered activity; it may be one to which teachers can refer multiple times as students process new information.
Following the idea that students need to invest in their learning, especially during the pandemic when there is more reliance on students learning at home and taking control of their own education, another strategy is to implement more project-based learning options. Allow students to help create their inquiry-based ideas. This can allow for more ways to assess formatively so educators can make appropriate and individualized changes for each student. And it will allow for enrichment for those students who would like to move beyond the original task. Finally, providing a chance for collaborative project-based undertaking will build on the virtual interactions, eliminating some of the isolation students may feel at times.
The idea that students are not similar should permeate the forefront of an educator’s mind when planning lessons and adjusting curriculum. Thus, adding in socially and culturally relevant experiences will allow students to view their identities in their education. This should not require a complete disassembly of a teacher’s plan for the year or even a unit; but changing an element to help reflect the diversity of students is optimal right now. Changing from a multiple-choice final exam to a reflective paper is a perfect example of allowing students to choose their own direction and show multiple perspectives, as well as varying abilities.
One of the more difficult educational aspects to adjust pertains to grading and assessments. Instructors have neither the time nor energy to develop an assessment for each student. So how does one manage to meet all students’ needs, ranging from students with special needs to ELL students to gifted students?
Well, in the same vein as project-based concepts, a more inclusive and equitable way for students to prove their knowledge of subject matter is through demonstration in their selected forms of expression. It eliminates the need for one localized assessment to be equal, and it provides a more engaging learning atmosphere for students who can select the ways in which they want to prove their proficiency.
It may also allow for enrichment beyond the unit. Too often, educators limit themselves in their designs of assessment. These types of assessments at home will allow students to showcase their interests and comprehension in more flexible ways. Music, acting, toys, and bedroom backgrounds (appropriate designs of course) can be quite beneficial to student learning. This flexibility will also provide more relaxed environments in which teachers can operate themselves.
Pre-recorded presentations, developing culturally sensitive materials, and consistently providing accommodations and adjustments for students with disabilities can be challenging but will be more than helpful as teachers continue to navigate virtual learning. Collaborating with other teachers, especially special education teachers, using aides in virtual classrooms, connecting with principals to develop relationships for both students and teachers, and researching strategies to develop one’s own teaching is imperative at this point. Continuously showing grace, flexibility, and openness is the key to supporting students in the virtual learning world.