Good, Bad, Ugly of Virtual Learning

By: Michael Niehoff

Saying that virtual learning, or the entire impact of the pandemic on schools, has been overwhelming would be an understatement. That being said, there have been lots of positives, especially this fall after lots of real time learning last spring. These include, but are not limited to greater technology integration, collaboration, experimentation, adult learning, risk taking and much more. 

So, what has it looked like this fall? Good? Bad? Ugly? As you can imagine, it’s been a little of everything. Here are some choice highlights: 

The Ugliest of the Ugly 

I think one of the most tragic aspects of this pandemic-induced virtual learning has been to see the lack of empathy some educators (not the majority) have still displayed despite all of the indications of the challenges for learners. One of the most gravest examples is a one last month from my local community college that made national news. As most of us know, many college students, especially community college students, are working parents. Recently, a student, who is also a new mother, said she received an email from her professor communicating that she – as per class expectations – had to leave her camera and mic on at all times during this four-hour online class for attendance purposes. The student responded to the instructor and informed him that she always had her camera and mic on, except when she had to breastfeed her 10-month-old baby. Not only did this not elicit the response from the professor that she hoped, she said that during the next class the professor shared the situation with the entire class as an example about class expectations. The student reported the situation to the administration and ultimately received an apology from the professor. The administration said that the professor was unaware of the legal obligations in regards to breastfeeding.  

What’s wrong with this story? So many things for sure. First of all, do we need laws to guide us as educators to do the right thing? What happened to common sense and empathy? We often hear that we want our students to have empathy. But it has to start with us. Secondly, when does shaming, regardless of the situation, work to promote learning and professionalism? It doesn’t of course. To me, this example should serve as a reminder to all educators that we need to be aware of our students’ situations and various challenges, as well as model appropriate, professional behavior.  

Sadly, I could go on with just the stories that have made national news. This includes the case of the 4th grade student who was suspended for having a bb gun in the background of his camera view during a virtual class (see story here). Or I could share personal examples such as the one involving my daughter, a senior in high school who is concurrently enrolled as well in two college classes. In one of her college courses, all online, there has not been one moment of virtual instruction or interaction – only posted assignments at the class portal. None of the students have ever talked to or seen their instructor. She has never talked to or seen one of them.  


Getting The Jump On Planning, Preparing, Adult Learning 

Some schools and districts didn’t wait until the standard pre-service before school, but rather created unique summer offerings for their teachers in preparation for a virtual fall start. Val Verde Unified School District in Southern California made that bold move. They launched a 64-hour professional learning series that teachers could opt to participate in from July 27 – August 5. According to Val Verde Superintendent Michael McCormick, the district’s board of education stepped up and allocated funding in order to get teachers really ready to launch virtually in the fall. Teachers – who could work either from home or at school –  were paid a summer contract.  

McCormick and his team were really excited about their 78% teacher participation rate. “This was really unprecedented in every way,” said McCormick. “We are in unusually challenging times so it’s great to see our board and teachers respond in unusually exceptional ways.” 

This is all part of the district’s new Val Verde TREK Professional Learning Initiative which is competency-based and rooted in adult learning theory, according to McCormick.  

“We are challenging our teachers to experience a whole new level of learning that is gamified, personalized and choice-based,” said McCormick. “The concept is based on missions where learners choose which levels they want to advance through. 

Bottom line seems to be that we can never have enough planning and professional learning as long as it’s relevant, timely and well-executed. 


The Good Getting Better 

Although her teachers have continued to make many strides with technology integration, Elementary Principal Jennifer Klozcko is even more proud of her teachers and staff in terms of the effort they made to establish relationships and a learning culture with all of the students and their families. 

“Very challenging to start the year virtually with TK and Kinders who have never been to the school,” said Klozcko. “It’s challenging to go on Zoom when you’ve never met.” 

Her staff has met this challenge by focusing the first two weeks of school on culture building and intentionally slowing things down in order to get everyone on board. Klozcko said that her staff did this by organizing things like the drive-up supplies meet and greet on the first day of school, meets and greets on Zoom, one-on-one parent and student conferences with their teachers, morning messages and instructional videos. Additionally, she said that she and her staff were able to adjust their calendar and pushed the start of school back in order to have four days of distance learning that they organized in a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ camp style.  

Ultimately, Klozcko said what she thinks has been the most effective is the various efforts to communicate with families. “We’re trying to meet a lot of expectations from the district, from the teachers, from the families, from the students,” said Klozcko. “We are intentionally focusing on flexibility, transparency, personalization and continually thinking differently.  

Others have concurred about the good getting better and both educators and students really stepping up to help one another.  

Middle School Teacher Jon Corippo is excited about the growth he is seeing in his students as leaders and young professionals.  

“Kids are really demonstrating resilience. Students are really advocating for themselves,” said  Corippo. “They are helping one another and interacting at high levels in new ways.” 

Elementary Principal Catina Haugen is also enjoying seeing students really step up and help one another as well as their teachers. “As an example, I have heard students advising their teacher to put a group in a breakout room and the student offering to help them,” said Haugen. “Or I have often heard a student asking their teacher if they can share their screen to demonstrate something to the rest of the class.” 

But Haugen said her biggest success has been how she has seen her teachers. “I’m seeing a new excitement now from teachers about planning and trying new things,” said Haugen. “They are now planning with real joy, are excited about trying something new with their students and really working to engage them in new ways.” 


Permanent Changes 

At the TMI Espiscopal School in San Antonio, Texas, all students and staff have already returned to campus. However, Associate Head of School Anne Schaefer-Salinas said that the flexibility and creativity from the pandemic’s virtual and hybrid opportunities produced new ideas that have transformed her school. Schaefer-Salinas and her staff created Wednesday Community Day as a means to offer some support and extended advisory during the virtual learning experience. But now, she said they are using Community Day for clubs, athletics, staff collaboration, student conferences and even deep cleaning. 

“What we’re finding is that this is completely transforming so many things at our school,” said Schaefer-Salinas. “Even absenteeism is down.” 


Looking Ahead 

Like all systems, it seems disruption spawns both potentially negative and positive results. Education has been experiencing disruption continually for awhile – technology, new economies, globalization and more. And then most recently, there has been a forced move to virtual learning with the pandemic. As things get re-written, not everyone likes or sees themselves in the story. As one who thinks the changes we’re seeing in learning are long overdue, maybe this recent shock to the system is exactly the tipping point it needed. Like many have said, I don’t think there will be a return to normal. And that’s probably good. When did normal ever produce what we really need? 

Skip to content