Making Connections in the Virtual Classroom

Telephone

Once upon a time, people also feared this new technology would destroy our capacity for interpersonal communication.

Last week I happened to be speaking to the parents of a friend, one of whom is a lifetime educator.  As inevitably happens, the conversation turned to my job.  The conversation went something like this:

Traditional Educator: Are you able to see your students, and can they see you?

Me: Yes, we do have webcam capability, but I find it tends to be more distracting than useful so I tend not to use it.

Traditional Educator: How are you able to teach without seeing each other?  How do you know if they’re working if you can’t see what they’re doing?

Me: Well, I am able to interact with my students in our live sessions through a virtual whiteboard and application sharing, and I get a pretty good idea of who is working and learning by assessing their work, just like in a traditional classroom.

Traditional Educator: But, how are you able to make connections with your students?  It’s impossible to make real, meaningful connections over the Internet where you can’t even look someone in the eye.

Me: You’re right, it’s harder to connect online, but it’s not impossible.  You have to be creative and flexible in order to create connections in online teaching, but I find some students actually find it easier to connect and relate with adults from a distance without the social context which they can sometimes find overwhelming.

Traditional Educator: I don’t think it’s healthy, being on the computer all day long.

Me:  I agree, I think it works best for students who have something else that they are involved in outside, such as sports, the arts or a group activity.  I do worry about the ones who say all they do other than school is play World of Warcraft.  But the truth is that many of these students are going to be sitting at computers all day in their future careers, and learning to communicate and make connections in an online setting is going to be an essential skill.

Tradtional Educator: Harumphgmwhmorecoffee.

OK, so, this was the fantasy version of the conversation, but it is pretty close to the real thing that plays out every time I feel I have to defend what I do to someone who is unfamiliar with, and perhaps suspicious of, the idea of online education.  And I must admit to seeing a great deal of validity in their concerns, enough so that these are the very issues I am personally grappling with as an online educator.  How do we make meaningful connections in an online setting?  How do we motivate students to participate and engage in learning?  How do we make sure students are getting adequate socialization and learning skills like cooperation and teamwork?  What do we do to re-engage those students who are tuning out and likely to drop out (with nothing to “turn on” to besides the TV or video games)?

With some students, it’s easy.  There are those students who show up for the live sessions, do their work independently, and seek help when they need it.  They tend to have supportive, involved Learning Coaches (typically a parent, most often a mom) who are able to be active partners in their education.  They tell me about themselves, about their lives, and seek out connections with their teachers.  These students inevitably succeed, even when they are challenged, because they are able to maneuver the system and use the resources available — they are able to “play school.”

But then there are far more students who come to the table with far less.  They are academically unprepared, perhaps years behind grade level in basic skills.  Their parents want them to succeed but are unable to provide the support they need for various reasons: working two jobs, family chaos, personal issues…Online school, by its nature, attracts those students who are not being served by a traditional public school, and so a large number of our students are under-served and under-prepared.  They do not know how to access the systems and they are afraid to ask for help, or they don’t know they need help.  They don’t attend the live sessions, or they do but don’t participate.  The work doesn’t get turned in, even after the student has *promised* that this time, they will get it done.  Emails, phone calls, text messages go unanswered (anyone know where you get a carrier pigeon?).

I ask myself, in a traditional school, would it be any different?  There would still be those students who wouldn’t show up for class, who wouldn’t do their work, and who would fail out.  So perhaps, as I have said before, the problems we see in the online school are no different from the ones that exist in the traditional school, just amplified by our particular setting and its challenges.  What I do know for sure is that online school isn’t going to go away — in fact, our enrollment skyrocketed this year and will likely continue to do so.  We are a school setting under construction, trying to find our way.  But in the meantime, there are real, live students learning online, and they do want to make meaningful connections with their teachers — they just need teachers who are willing to learn how to connect and communicate in the way that works for the student, not just for the teacher.

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