The coronavirus pandemic is forcing us into a nationwide experiment with online education.
Until now, online education has largely held a supplemental and supporting role to traditional classroom learning.
But, as campuses across the country shut down in-person instruction and shift en masse to exclusively using distance learning in an effort to limit transmission of the virus, we suddenly find ourselves thrust into uncharted territory.
This unprecedented turn of events is fraught with challenges for educators, students and parents, not the least of which is mobilizing efforts to ensure that all students have adequate access to technology.
Though only time will tell what the long-term fallout of this sudden change will be, I decided to consult a couple of experts to glean some insights about the potential implications.
First, I spoke with Gerard Beenen, interim associate dean and professor of management at Cal State Fullerton’s Mihaylo College of Business and Economics, who has extensively studied teaching online.
One of my takeaways from my conversation with Beenen is that this abrupt change in circumstances will be extraordinarily difficult for an educational infrastructure that is notoriously risk-averse, bureaucratic and slow to evolve.
“It requires institutions to be nimble against their will,” he said.
Like it or not, educators are now forced to pivot quickly and try to provide a comparable level of instruction while adapting lessons and tests to a digital format.
This will be particularly tough for those teachers who are less comfortable with distance learning or haven’t received much training with, for example, interactive online platforms like Zoom.
When he developed his first online class, Beenen noted, it took him 500 hours to develop 40 hours of instruction. That equates to more than 12 hours of preparation for every hour of lesson time.
“People don’t have that time” in today’s environment, he said. “Things will be done very quickly.”
Another factor to consider, he said, is that some types of learning — science labs, for instance — don’t convert readily to online studies. No matter how well-designed the lesson plans, some depth will undoubtedly be lost due to the absence of hands-on instruction and interactivity.
Students, too, will have varying levels of comfort with the move to online education. Some will adapt more easily, while others might struggle, such as those who require a high degree of structure, don’t do well with ambiguity or find it harder to focus and ignore distractions while at home.
“We’re going to have students who don’t have same competency as they would in a regular learning situation,” Beenen said.
Therefore, he suggested, expectations and assessments of student progress will also have to be adjusted to reflect this new reality.
Another major concern is that some students might be vulnerable to high levels of stress brought on by an abrupt change in routine and by the social isolation required to combat the virus’s spread.
Shanna Farmer, a Newport Beach-based licensed marriage and family therapist and an associate clinical professor at the UC Irvine School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, said that parents should be on the alert for signs of anxiety and depressive disorders in their children.
“There are a lot of potential issues for anxiety and depression to settle in whenever we have a sudden shift in everyday routines,” she said.
Students with learning disabilities and pre-existing mental health conditions will be especially at risk, she said.
Warning signs that children aren’t coping well could include higher-than-usual levels of irritability or frustration, trouble sleeping, withdrawal or excessive clinginess.
“One of the things that I think is really important, however long this goes on, is that people try to keep something of a routine,” Farmer said.
That means parents should maintain the same bedtime and wake-up times for their kids and adhere to a specific schedule for structured learning experiences.
They should sit their children down, discuss expectations and come up with a family plan for meeting those expectations, she said.
Parents should also make time for physical activity, entertainment, and self-care, whether it’s a family walk to the park, playing board games, or learning meditation techniques, Farmer suggested.
Another dimension to this experience that should be emphasized, Farmer said, is that it presents an opportunity to model positive attitudes and behavior.
Parents can demonstrate and encourage such qualities as resilience, altruism, gratitude and compassion, and foster a we’re-all-in-this-together sense of community and shared sacrifice.
“This could be a really wonderful way for society to grow through this,” she said.
It’s a lovely thought. I hope Farmer is right, and that we emerge from this crisis a little wiser, kinder and better prepared for turbulent times ahead.