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Three challenges virtual education needs to overcome

Three challenges virtual education needs to overcome

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Virtual education is an everyday reality for some teachers and students. In all likelihood, it represents the future of education as well — both K-12 as well as education at the college and university level. Even as it’s becoming an inescapable part of the classroom experience, teachers and students find themselves with uncertainties, growing pains and challenges to overcome.

In particular, educators face an uphill climb when it comes to determining how to teach students online or in a blended learning environment. In 2017, one in six students was enrolled in at least one distance learning course, for a roughly 5.7 percent increase since 2016

Here’s a look at three of the challenges this new educational frontier brings to the table and some thoughts on how instructors and students alike can overcome them, for the benefit of all.

1. The technology learning curve

Every kind of new technology has a learning curve. The first challenge for educators involves getting used to new tools and techniques and helping students do the same.

The best thing an educator can do is embrace the idea that technology changes regularly and brings opportunities to expand our skills and tool sets. Like it or not, that often means learning to troubleshoot an unfamiliar platform, such as a telepresence system or an online student hub for sending out classwork and collecting finished assignments.

It’s true that technology changes and gets updated often — and that it doesn’t always work the way we expect it to. The best advice for teachers is to be prepared to spend some time getting to know the virtual learning tools you’ll be using before your students get their hands on them. In addition, keep the contact information of your tech support team handy and bookmark any online resources they’ve made available.

2. The feeling of isolation

Telecommuting to work is normal for many professionals. Whether or not a true majority of students ends up telecommuting to their classes in the near future, the fact remains that the internet binds us together as surely as it isolates us. What does this mean for educators and students?

Students:

Virtual learning is a breath of fresh air for many reasons, but it’s still possible you’ll find yourself missing the feeling of belonging and companionship that comes with sitting in a classroom alongside your peers. However, the same technology that makes you feel this way also delivers tools for overcoming it. Take the initiative in your educational career by reaching out to your friends and teachers to build rapport and a support system. Your school’s virtual learning platform probably has live chat features, real-time presentation tools and other ways to connect. Use them!

Educators:

Prepare to add “virtual office hours” to your vocabulary. This isn’t just for classroom instructors, either. Virtual learning is now a part of everyday reality for tutors, help desk staff, and student counselors and advisors. The one part of your job that won’t ever change, no matter how “virtual” learning becomes, is that you’ll need intuition to identify students who are feeling out-of-the-loop, isolated or behind on their work. Know how to reach out using the tools at your disposal, as well as where to refer them if it looks like they need support — or even just somebody to talk to. Education is about learning, but it’s also about building human relationships. The technology involved doesn’t have to get in the way of that mission — so don’t let it.

3. The challenge of managing time wisely

Whether in the workplace or an educational setting, telepresence and related digital technologies tend to elicit similar worries. Will workers or students manage their time wisely when they’re not gathered together with other people working toward the same goal? Can a remote worker or student telecommuting to campus from their living room still manage their time wisely, even without the built-in pressures that come with physically being someplace?

The answer is yes. However, it might require students and educators to rethink the traditional approach to time and task management.

For K-12 students engaged in virtual learning, parents can and should step into a leadership role when it comes to asking questions about how schoolwork is progressing. They should find out whether their school-age children need more help in managing their time.

What about students without that kind of support — and what about those at the college level who still struggle with managing their time well? The truth is, not every educator and online course is as organized and structured as the rest. To help students better manage their time, instructors should come up with a syllabus well in advance, with due dates already mapped out, and then stick to that schedule unless something truly disruptive happens to alter things.

Solving this problem also requires teachers to fully embrace the digital platforms they’re using. Submitting assignments online is one thing. What about having students submit each piece of their major projects — like coming up with concepts, developing a thesis, writing the first draft and so on — online for peer review? An experience like that doesn’t just drive home the idea of a truly collaborative virtual classroom. It also serves to keep students mindful of deadlines and always working toward the next milestone.

Virtual learning is a revelation

Digital technologies have already changed the educational experience for good, all the way from K-12 to higher learning in private universities and public colleges. In 2017, 34 out of 50 states in the U.S. offered full-time virtual schools. It’s hard to ignore the many advantages they bring, such as helping students in remote areas connect with a high-quality education. Online education also offers individuals with not-quite-ideal home lives or those who must hold down jobs while they study, to better balance their schoolwork with everything else going on.

For teachers and students alike, those same technologies require an open mind and a spirit of collaboration. If we do it right, virtual learning might offer even greater, and more convenient, opportunities for student-teacher and student-student interaction than the traditional classroom ever did.

We’re only as isolated by technology as we allow ourselves to be. Who knows? Maybe learning how to be sociable through technology in the classroom will help up us learn to do it elsewhere, too.

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Written by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is the author of Schooled By Science. She invites you to join her in discussing the latest news in science and technology on Twitter, @nicholsrmegan.

 

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