The pandemic has necessitated the widespread adoption of virtual learning, but if it’s going to be a primary and effective learning tool for the foreseeable future, we have some serious work to do.
McKinsey reports that studies of current virtual classrooms show that only about 60 percent of low-income students regularly participate, compared to 90 percent of high-income students. Similarly, only between 60 percent and 70 percent of students in schools that serve predominantly Black and Hispanic students log into online instruction regularly.
The evidence is clear: Virtual classrooms are failing huge populations of students and exacerbating inequalities.
With no end to the pandemic in sight, virtual learning will continue into the spring semester — and likely become a permanent fixture in education. If we can’t create more inclusive and impactful strategies for virtual learning soon, we’ll be dooming students at all levels to an objectively lesser learning experience. In the present moment, we must consider improving virtual learning as an imperative task.
Why virtual classrooms fail — and how to fix them
Most virtual classrooms utilize some form of asynchronous learning: where students complete most of their work independently and face-to-face video calls are reserved for lectures and instruction.
For many teachers and professors, this is the complete opposite of usual teaching strategies, where lectures are also a place for questions and discussions. The flexible, self-guided learning of asynchronous methods might work fine for college kids living on campus or focusing on their studies full time. However, nontraditional students who may be trying to learn while working full- or part-time jobs and caring for children or other family members are likely to struggle to fit virtual learning into their busy lives without the previous structure offered by in-person education.
K-12 students also face challenges with asynchronous learning. Sitting on a sofa and staring at a laptop screen is simply not an engaging way to learn, and who among us hasn’t been distracted by a phone buzzing, a doorbell ringing, or the neighbor’s dog barking? Without being there in person, teachers don’t have the opportunity to refocus students and keep them on task.
Asking students at any level to learn independently ultimately creates a high risk they won’t learn properly. The consequence of virtual classrooms designed in this manner is that skills gaps develop across the student body and leave an entire generation unprepared for school, work, or life basics.
In that context, it’s clear how much depends on getting virtual learning right — and doing it fast. It will take time and experience to find the best way forward, but these might be beneficial places for educators to begin:
1. Deliver support. There’s plenty of empirical research and anecdotal evidence to suggest that asynchronous learning leaves some students feeling lost in the learning experience. It makes sense: Teachers exist for a reason. Students at all levels need opportunities to meet with instructors and ask for help. Ideally, that can happen in a one-on-one setting, but even group meetings are helpful because they directly connect students and instructors.
Interactions between students and teachers can happen over video calls or chats. Even indirect contact, such as sending a weekly Google Form asking students what they’re struggling with, can help identify students who need extra assistance. Students who need help don’t always ask, and one-on-one video conferences can be intimidating. It’s up to educators to find ways to stay in close contact with the whole class.
3 ways to make virtual learning more impactful
2. Expand access to virtual classrooms. Even with the best virtual system in place, students may struggle to access it due to outside factors — perhaps the biggest being a lack of adequate internet access. Many students don’t have home internet access, and many more don’t have adequate bandwidth, especially with many parents working from home.
One district dealt with this issue by offering Wi-Fi at multiple city-owned locations, with plans to later install dozens of Wi-Fi hot spots throughout town. Another option is to make more virtual classrooms available on mobile, where internet access is more widespread. In one form or another, schools need to address the digital divide growing between students who have reliable internet access at home and those who don’t.
3. Create a sense of community. Making a virtual classroom feel more like a vibrant, collaborative collection of learners and less like a message board takes more than just direct engagement opportunities. Socialization is also a big component of education. When possible, virtual classrooms should let students interact outside of a strict learning space — perhaps in a dedicated chat. Students should also have roles outside of being learners. Have them lead discussions, present on topics, or help facilitate the class somehow.
Above all, don’t let students become passive participants. The best education, whether in-person or online, goes out of its way to keep students engaged rather than bombarding them with information.
We have plenty of examples of what the wrong virtual classrooms look like. Now, it’s time to learn from those mistakes and build a model that’s scalable, sustainable, and supportive for all learners.