Lessons From Distance Learning

by | May 8, 2021

Written by: Rodrigo Pacheco-McEvoy

Schools are reopening, restaurants are greeting patrons once again, and movie theaters are welcoming moviegoers back. As public life slowly but surely resumes, many of us are eager to put this pandemic behind us and see life return to normal. But lately I’ve been thinking that perhaps I shouldn’t return to life exactly as it was before, that perhaps there are a few lessons I should take with me going forward. This is especially true when it comes to education.

Distance learning has forced many of us—both teachers and students—to change our approach to education; indeed, distance learning has made digital technologies central to the educational experience. Now, I’m hardly a Luddite, but prior to the pandemic I’d always been partial to traditional forms of instruction. As a writing teacher, I’d spend a significant amount of class time writing and rewriting paragraphs on the white board. In hindsight, I realize that this maybe wasn’t always efficient. In the classes I’ve been teaching remotely, I’ll often share my screen with my students so that we can draft and edit paragraphs together. And I’ve found that typing, as opposed to writing by hand, makes these writing exercises more productive and engaging.

I’ve also found that digital technologies allow me to check my students’ work in real-time. Previously, whenever we’d work on practice passages in class, I’d furiously bounce from student to student to check his or her answers. This is why virtual polls are a godsend—they allow teachers to simultaneously check everyone’s answers and almost immediately identify patterns that may point to potential problems. When I come back to in-person teaching, I plan to bring these technologies with me to the classroom to enhance my teaching as well as students’ learning.

But technology isn’t always reliable. In fact, it can be downright counterproductive. Sometimes things don’t turn out exactly the way you’d hoped—breakout rooms don’t work, videos won’t load, or screens freeze. If there’s another thing I’ve learned from this year-long experiment, it’s that greater flexibility in the classroom is essential and that it’s never a bad idea to have contingency plans in place.

My experience with distance learning has also taught me—or rather reminded me of—the importance of the human element in education. Being physically distant from my students, I often seek ways to make them feel more connected and valued. I’ve found that encouraging peer work and giving students more creative autonomy, for instance, can increase their drive to learn. This holds true when it comes to distance and in-person learning.

This year has certainly been challenging, but perhaps it has also taught us a few things that can make us better teachers as well as students. If you are student, I encourage you to reflect on your experiences with distance learning and to take note of the things that worked well for you—and the things that didn’t work as well. You might just find value in those lessons.