Student Lessons From the Virtual Learning Experiment

Students have witnessed the challenges of virtual learning first hand. But they’ve also seen the benefits!

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I was teaching when the pandemic started. 

The week before schools closed  in Oregon, students were giddy with the thought of classes being suspended for a couple of weeks. I confess, mid-March of 2020, I had no objections to an early start to spring break either. 

But now, almost a full year since school moved online, students are counting the days until we return to in-person instruction. 

But, like me, they’ve also seen the hidden gifts of virtual learning. This week at The Juice, we talked to kids about what they’ve liked about this new remote education. We wanted to know: what elements of virtual learning we should hold on to even after we are all back together in the classroom?

Here’s what they had to say:

1. Prioritize organization

Nina, a current 10th grader, observed that “everything online is so organized.” Without being able to fall back on verbal explanations, teachers have had to make sure that schedules, assignments, and directions are clear and concise. Remote learning made teachers like me more aware of gaps in our own practice, and, because we all knew that kids are facing so many challenges beyond our control, we did everything in our power to eliminate the barriers we could.

2. Offer flexibility and Independence

Nina also appreciated the flexibility and independence that came with remote learning and allowed her family to create a schedule that worked for all of them. “When we used to go to school,” she explained, “I would have to wake up and get dropped off at school early so my mom could make it to her job on time. But now with [school] being online,” she went on,  “we both can work on our own schedules.”

Nina hopes that, even when we return to full-time in-person instruction, there might still be an option to Zoom into class on occasion. “Obviously there would be limitations,” she added, “so students can’t just skip everyday, but I believe that sometimes things come up and going to school can be hard.” Nina explained that keeping remote learning as an option would prevent students who sometimes have to miss school from having to learn new things by themselves or getting overloaded with make-up work.”

3. Remember to Appreciate Each Other

Anthony, a 6th grader who only started back in-person learning this month, reflected that “not seeing everyone every day was something new.” It made him really appreciate when he got to see his teachers and other students face-to-face, even if it was over Zoom. More so than at any point in my teaching career, I heard students say “I miss school.” The pandemic has helped remind us all of what schools provide for us, beyond an education. 

4. Lead with Empathy

Anthony also noted that everyone seemed calmer and kinder during remote learning. “Before the pandemic,” he said, “we were treated kind of rough, like we were always in trouble.” During remote learning, he noticed that teachers seemed more patient and more willing to give students the benefit of the doubt. 

While learning remotely, we were all given a small window into each other’s lives. It helped us remember that while we are teachers or students or administrators, we are also parents or sisters, people who like video games or who have dogs, even people who sometimes wear PJs during the day. 

Olive, a third grader, told me that she didn’t like anything about virtual learning. But then she paused. “Except taking walks. I liked taking walks in the middle of the day.” Remote learning gave us permission to be more than students and teachers, even in an academic setting.

The parents I’ve talked to would add one other important lesson they’ve learned from virtual learning .

5. Partner with families

The sudden switch to virtual learning has allowed families to have daily insight into what their kids are learning and how. Parents and guardians feel more involved than ever in their students’ school experience. In a recent article on the benefits of virtual learning, Danielle Mancinelli, Director of Professional Development at Springboard Collaborative, wrote, “Family engagement has always mattered, but distance learning has highlighted the urgency of this engagement. Pre-COVID, schools may have connected with some eager parents. Now more than ever, schools must leverage partnerships with ALL families to ensure they have everything they need for their children to learn.” Virtual learning highlighted the importance of a direct and consistent line of communication between schools and families. 

What comes next?

In August of last year, “93% of people in households with school-age children reported their children engaged in some form of “distance learning” from home.” 

While virtual learning is still a reality for many students in America, more and more districts around the country are starting to discuss plans for returning in-person instruction, and it seems the end  may soon be in sight.

So what will we take away from this massive global experiment? 

If we jump right back in where we left off last March, we will miss an opportunity to reflect, reconsider, and possibly redesign schools to better serve our students and our families. 

So when you are back in the classroom, whenever that happens, remember to ask your students, like you always do, “What have we learned?”


About the Author

Caroline Rex-Waller is a certified K-12 teacher and freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She began teaching in 2015 after receiving her M.A. in Teaching from Marlboro College, and later completed a M.A. in English through the Bread Loaf School of English. She now works to support high school students pursuing dual enrollment opportunities at their local community college. Caroline loves collaborative games, asking questions, and discovering new dystopian fiction.

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Like many career educators, in addition to my 14 years as a classroom teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, I served in many roles, including nine summers as the Principal of the Cambridge-Harvard Summer Academy. As a principal, teacher, mentor, advisor, and coach, I taught a wide range of subjects to a wide range of learners.

I earned my BA in History from Boston College and my Masters in teaching from Tufts University.

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