Rethinking education – what we’ve learned from online teaching

At 14:45, on 13 March 2020, John I. Leonard High School in Florida, US – where I am Principal – dismissed 3500 students and 300 staff and faculty members. From that moment on, we all became acquainted with terms such as asynchronous, synchronous, distance learning, and virtual meetings. Among so many unknowns, one change became clear: that online teaching and learning would become our new norm. Personally, I am excited for the opportunities, both known and unknown, that this past year has represented for education.

Up to this point, online teaching has been a choice, but never an essential component of teaching and learning. Certainly, online teaching has its advantages. Among these, online teaching provides students and staff with a choice of location. Even though there is no substitute for face-to-face instruction, online teaching also offers a level of flexibility that provides students with access to synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Now that we are starting to return to classrooms full time, we have the unique opportunity to rethink how we intentionally engage students online and monitor academic learning. In my opinion, online teaching, and the innovation of educational technology, places new interactive tools at the fingertips of our educators and students that can’t be ignored.

These tools help us all to engage different types of learners and their different personalities. One feedback shared by my teachers is that online engagement tools provide students with a safe way to interact, and this is especially true if the student is shy, introverted, or prefers not to be in the spotlight. As a result, there is great potential to evolve our communication skills with the wider school community.

In addition, we have the opportunity to document teaching and learning, and as a result, provide students with a resource of lessons throughout the school year. Another advantage has been the expansion of our proficiency with technology and the opportunity for educators to meet and share information and best practices, regardless of location. For instance, my teachers are able to collaborate with each other, as well as teachers from other schools, using new technology.

If we embrace these advantages, it is my hope that we, as educators, may provide all students, regardless of personality, background, or dominant language, with access to the best education, based on individual strengths.

While we look to take advantage of these great new opportunities, we should also recognise that online teaching has presented challenges that have led to disadvantages. In some cases, online teaching may limit student interactions with teachers and other students. These limitations can negatively impact the ability of students to access and process information, and it hinders student acquisition of social skills, collaborative skills, and critical thinking skills, as well as affecting wellbeing.

The online learning environment also highlights the significance and need for teachers to observe body language that accompanies learning and thinking, and teachers should be able to use those cues to redirect as needed or adjust pedagogical strategies. This is especially true when students are acquiring language or need additional services and accommodations. These challenges are compounded by the isolation of students from participation in in-person social and emotional learning.

We need to acknowledge that virtual social emotional learning is not a substitute for in-person interactions and relationship building.

Online teaching and learning have a future in education. I believe that online learning aligns with how our younger generation decodes their environment. I also believe in the effectiveness of online teaching and learning when used in conjunction with face-to-face learning methods.

This article was published in the latest issue of Cambridge Outlook magazine, which explores some of the opportunities and challenges created by online teaching. Read the magazine.

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