Last year’s remote learning got some things right

Samuel Battis , Staff Writer

Ahh, April. A time of flowers, showers, and in 2020, frantic digital schooling in the wake of Covid-19. The format used by teachers during this time period was highly variable, sometimes difficult to follow, and markedly easier and more lenient than regular school. But for all its flaws, Liberty’s original digital school format may have some things to teach us. 

If the major goals of digital school are ensuring the curriculum is covered, providing students the tools they need to learn, connecting students to the community, and promoting health, the current format’s track record is at least as unappealing as its predecessor—for some students, even more so.

It is undeniable that the current system—which encourages using Zoom calls for the majority of instruction and mandates an eight-class gauntlet on Mondays and Tuesdays—ensures participation to a higher degree than the previous program. Last spring, nonparticipation was rampant among students (partially because high grades were locked in for some or all classes), so in this aspect, the new program may be an improvement. 

However, when it comes to promoting connectivity among students and teachers, conventional wisdom may go awry. Although students currently spend their days “in class” with their peers, interaction is often minimal. When no breakout rooms are opened in a period, near-zero student-to-student interaction takes place. Even when utilized, breakout rooms are infamous for the apathy that tends to pervade them. Every student has been in that breakout room in which every camera is off and no microphone is unmuted for the duration of the meeting. Digital interaction can be uninspiring to say the least, but after sitting in front of a screen for hours listening to Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting, exhaustion is a more-than-fair explanation for silence.

The countless hours students spend in class is a double-edged sword: though it may facilitate interaction among the student body as a whole, it tends to monopolize students’ time, cutting them off from their friends and family. During trying times, these are the people students need most. Considering this, the flexibility and efficiency of asynchronous work may be the superior system for supporting students socially.

Another flaw of Zoom-based schooling is that many crucial aspects of traditional classes rely upon a real-world setting. Seen through a screen, unfamiliar teachers and students can feel as distant as any other digital figure. It may be telling that many commercially offered online courses consist exclusively of learning objectives and assigned videos/assignments. 

Though students are split on their preference for or against asynchronous work, it must be acknowledged that the current system has an extremist slant towards the few who enjoy and benefit from what is often seven hours of Zoom classes straight. 

On the subject of student health, the format from last March possesses one final advantage. Few argue that 25 mandatory hours in front of the computer a week (not including homework) is healthy for students. Some classes have a net-positive effect on student wellbeing: PE takes up minimal time while encouraging students to stay active, and many CTE courses create novelty in students’ lives without imposing oppressive amounts of work. But the majority of classes have no way to address the all-consuming nature of the current format’s scheduling and homework load, and running through all eight periods in one day, twice a week, is near-universally perceived as an unforgivable ordeal.

Digital school will be a work in progress for the foreseeable future, so it’s crucial that students and parents articulate their needs, and even more critical that the administration shape their policy according to input from those they serve. When policy manages to estrange the majority of students, families, and teachers, it should change, and quickly. During these trying, increasingly virtual times, flexibility and transparency are virtues that we must all strive for more than ever.