Adapting to the Virtual Learning Landscape

These four takeaways from a Virtual Teaching Academy can help teachers prepare an educational blueprint.

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By Pamela Roggeman
Communicator
September 2020, Volume 44, Issue 1

The coronavirus pandemic has proven to be one of the most significant disruptors to our education system in recent memory. The speed with which schools transitioned their instruction this spring, whether through sending home paper packets or through virtual instruction, is admirable. The effort, however, received mixed reviews from students, parents, teachers, and school leaders alike.

As the pandemic continues to spread, many educators are seeking guidance from experts in the online education space to help them prepare as they begin virtual, in-person, or hybrid school year.

In May, the University of Phoenix and Blackboard launched the Alliance for Virtual Learning, a comprehensive effort from K-12 leaders to help teachers make the transition to virtual learning. More than 5,000 teachers and administrators participated in the five-day Virtual Teaching Academy, covering some of the most pressing concerns about virtual education, such as providing equitable access, maintaining student relationships, serving special needs populations, and how to blend virtual and in-person instruction. 

The majority of school districts realized from being thrown into the virtual education deep end without notice that their online education plan was simply not robust enough. Educators need a blueprint for success moving forward, and that’s what the Virtual Teaching Academy aimed to provide. While the academy was focused on K-12 instruction, there were lessons learned that are applicable across all levels of education.

Here are a few key takeaways from the discussions for educators to consider:

  1. Don’t put the cart before the horse. It is easy to feel overwhelmed in the beginning of this process, so it’s important to focus your efforts. Start with a needs assessment based on your experience in the spring to determine where your district/school/classroom currently stands. Then you can seek targeted professional development to address skills gaps in virtual learning. Based on what you learn, communicate with leadership about what tools you need to be successful.
  2. Find the resources that fit your needs. The amount of learning that must be undertaken to prepare for virtual education in the fall is enormous. From technology needs to lesson planning and even communication with parents, almost everything about teaching is different in the virtual space. Fortunately, there are many resources being provided to educators and families to help facilitate this monumental change. Educational and professional organizations and education technology platforms are producing free webinars and rolling out new virtual educational tools for educators and parents to become more familiar with online education methodology and options. Search for specific topics, if you’ve narrowed them down. If you are still unsure, look for a general overview where the discussion might help you determine where your focus needs to be.
  3. Consider stressors for students and parents. Virtual learning is giving parents and students more options than ever in how they participate in schools. From new opportunities to demonstrate learning to embracing flexible schedules, asynchronous vs. synchronous programs or hybrid models, students will have more of a voice than they have ever had in how they want to participate. This is unlikely to change, even when in-person school resumes. Parents have always been important partners for educators; however, their role has greatly expanded as many students rely on their parents to help them navigate their lessons. While students today are digital natives, what we have learned is this is not always the case when it comes to problem solving a technical glitch or joining a Zoom meeting. Parental guidance and input are vital to make sure that virtual learning is successful. And this means ongoing communication with parents will be more important than it has ever been.
  4. Think beyond the lesson plans. Classroom management and keeping students engaged is completely different in virtual learning, so classroom educators are learning new ways to connect with students through a screen. But even connecting with many students is proving challenging. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed and even widened socio-economic gaps that have always been present in our classrooms but are no longer equalized by access to school resources, facilities, and social services. And this is true, as well, with providing services to special needs populations, which is another top priority educators are working on while developing their online education plans.

While we hoped that distance learning was a temporary solution, the pandemic has not gone away, and virtual education is likely to continue in some form throughout the fall and likely beyond. Educators will be able to better serve students when we accept that virtual learning is profoundly changing how we teach, discover what skills we lack and then seek out opportunities to learn how to do it better.

Virtual Teaching Academy sessions have concluded, but K-12 educators and administrators can access free resources to adapt to the new virtual learning landscape, including a blueprint to get you started.

Pamela Roggeman is dean of the College of Education at University of Phoenix.

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