For decades child development professionals suggested parents limit their children’s screen time. Now, as COVID-19 shrouds the world, sitting in front of a computer screen is a requirement for millions of children across the country.

Despite the issues raised about the ramifications of this method of academic delivery, teachers, parents and students are finding ways to make it work. Just as some children are struggling, others are thriving. A lot of how a student responds to remote learning depends on the student but the instructor can also make a difference.

“Online learning doesn't actually have to be online or on a screen,” said Michael Wesch, professor of anthropology at Kansas State University. “You can design projects and activities that, to get the instructions, you have to go online but most of the activity actually takes place out in the world.”

An assignment like journaling or a hands-on experiment will bring the student away from the screen and engage the brain. Examples he offered included building a contraption to protect an egg from a fall or speaking to an older person to learn how life and culture has changed over the decades.

“I try to design everything in a way that screen time is minimal,” he said. “I feel like we do a lot of our best thinking and growing when we're out in the world and exploring and doing things that are exciting.”

Wesch said learning is an adventure and he wants to guide his students on that adventure. One of his colleagues at K-State, Ryan Klataske, refers to what he calls “online learning for offline living.”

“The idea is to just minimize the online piece of it and get (students) out living and doing things and exploring the world with the tools that you're trying to teach them,” Wesch said.

Lotta Larson, associate professor at K-State College of Education agrees that for some children sitting in front of a computer for even two hours a day is not feasible. There are some children who simply cannot do it.

“Are there alternative assignments they could do or alternative methods of delivery of instruction?” she asked.

Making online classes work

Larson works with future and current teachers, and has spent a lot of time over the past several months supporting them in this online endeavor.

“The reality is, most teachers today have no or very little training in online teaching modalities,” she said. “That's not traditionally been part of the teacher preparation program.”

For Wesch, who started teaching college-level online four years ago, having that jump start played dividends when the pandemic hit. He said he is glad to have had a few years of online teaching experience before it was forced it upon him.

He learned early on to create a class structure, which would allow for unforeseen occurrences, although he admits a world-wide pandemic had not really been on his radar.

“The courses have to be, not easy, but really simple in their design, so that it's really clear, what you're going to do each week,” he said. “Another piece — I think there should be a rhythm to the class.”

An example of rhythm, he said is that in his classes each week there are three things due. The students always know they have three assignments to turn in — they get into a rhythm.

“This is the most important thing that goes all the way down into elementary school,” he said. “Students are not going to be able to think deeply and learn if they're constantly trying to figure out how to submit an assignment or what is, or they're worried about which assignments are due. So, creating a super simple structure to the course is, I think, essential.”

The pandemic obligated teachers of all levels kindergarten through college to learn, develop and deliver on-line courses. They made adjustments when they saw their students struggle, and they learned some of the benefits of remote instruction. When the threat of COVID-19 is over and students can return to the classroom, Larson said she thinks new teachers will continue to train in online instruction.

“It is a really positive thing,” she said. “We're preparing new teachers for the reality that most likely in K-12 settings they’re going to do online instruction to some degree. One of the things that we can look at too, is that for some students, this is a really positive experience.”

Helping students succeed online

Some students have thrived during this experience while others have struggled.

Pre-COVID-19 a normal classroom might have had 25 students — and 25 unique individuals with different learning styles, Larson said.

“Teachers do everything they can to sort of differentiate that instruction and try to present things in different ways,” she said. “When it comes to online teaching … it is harder to differentiate.”

Only meeting through Zoom changes the dynamics of the student and teacher relationship. When a teacher is in the classroom with the children, they can (deleted the word have) pick up little cues the child might drop when they are struggling.

“To get to know, a group of 20, 25 children, completely via Zoom is really hard,” she said. “That's where the parents come in with that communication between the parents and teachers and children. With this remote situation that we're in right now, that clear communication between families and teachers becomes even more critical.”

Similarly, as the student/teacher relationship changes when they are online, some students thrive off the energy of being in a group setting, which cannot be fully replicated in a Zoom room, Wesch said.

“There are some things you can do as a teacher to try to recreate that sense of shared community where you're all in a process together — you're on an adventure together,” he said. “That can create motivation, but it is very difficult.”

And not all students will succeed online. He has spoken to some who he ended up advising to take time off and come back after the pandemic, when they can be in a classroom setting again.

For students in the lower grades, who can’t take a year or two off, family and household dynamics are factors in their success.

“Do you have a special place in your house where you can designate as a learning area, where kids have their space and time to work on their schoolwork,” Larson said. “Do you have good internet access, proficient technology access — those variables are huge.”

But it also comes down to personality.

What Larson said she finds interesting is that the same issues that have helped some students are what have caused others to struggle.

“(The) independent, self-directed learner, those kiddos had done really well during this experience,” she said. “The ones that are not self-directed, or need that … sort of hand holding, they haven't succeeded during this time.”

Students who can manage their own schedules are finding success but that requires their instructors to allow them flexibility, she said. If they can take charge of their own schedules, they can work around some of the distractions they encounter at home.

Students’ classroom space is now at the dining room table, on the floor in the living room, in a kitchen or sitting cross legged on a bed; siblings are interrupting, pets are looking for extra attention. The learning environment is now rife with distractions.

However, there is a flipside.

Social interactions

“For some kiddos, working at home by themselves without the distractions of other students in the classroom has been a very positive experience,” Larson said. “For other kids, if you were a very social child, and you have that need to be around peers and work with peers, that could also be detrimental.”

Students, especially those in middle and high school, often focus on what other people are wearing, what someone said about someone else, and where they are going to sit in the lunch room.

“All that is very distracting from actual learning, and it can be extremely stressful for kids to go through,” Larson said. “So yes, peer interactions are important, but the peer pressure is difficult.”

For students whose classroom work suffered because of peer interactions, online learning has opened a world of educational opportunities minus that environment.

“You can be in your pajamas all day if you want to,” Larson said. “You don't have to worry about looking like every other 12-year-old girl. Hopefully, throughout this experience, students have come to recognize how important it is to be able to be themselves and as they come back into the classrooms and start hanging out with their peers again, we can keep that momentum going.”

She said that has been one of the positives she has heard from several youths — that it’s been nice not having to worry about how they look and what anyone else thinks.

Moving forward

When COVID-19 becomes a chapter in the history books the world will breathe a collective sigh of relief and put the pandemic behind them. But as society moves forward, it will take with it, lessons learned, Wesch and Larson said.

“Hopefully, as educators, as teachers, as parents, as students, we can take some good out of this experience and not just say we're going to go back to the way things were prior to COVID; that there are actually some good things that came out of it that we learned from and we can integrate into whatever the new normal is going to be,” Larson said.

Education professionals have spoken for years about integrating technology across curriculum. COVID-19 forced everyone into making the changes they had only contemplated.

Another potential positive is that schools have adjusted their emphasis on testing.

“It's difficult to administer high stakes testing when kids are at home,” she said. “We're looking at how to evaluate … and assess student progress and growth in different ways. Hopefully, we can learn from that and take some of that back to the classroom where it's not so high-stakes.”

It all comes down to how to make the learning experience most effective for the most students.

“The motivations for me starting (to teach online) also gives me a lot of like optimism about the future,” Wesch said. “I think there's a lot of good things that come out of this.”

He started teaching online to reach out to more students who don't have the time or cannot physically go to a campus. Online classes open the world of education to many more people.

“I think now that all of us are learning the skills of teaching online, we're going to have a lot better skills and infrastructure moving forward to provide better education for more people all over the state and even beyond that.”

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