BY PTAC MEMBER COLLEEN EPLER-RUTHS, Ph.D
Inspired by a conversation during a recent meeting, I set out to find out what my students felt about their new experience in online learning with me and overall. In some ways, I was driven by my fear of the future. What if we are online next fall? Would students flock to a virtual school? Is there a place for a brick and mortar teacher in this COVID world? Can I craft working relationships with a new set of students in a digital environment?
For context, my school district is considered rural but we do have one town and one very small city included in our population. We have 48% free/reduced lunches and about 10% minority (mostly Hispanic and/or Black). We are one of the districts in the state where a portion of our population has no internet access due to either poverty or location (rural without internet providers). For that reason, our spring semester was considered “enrichment.” We held online classes and office hours, provided online work (or packets), and provided graded feedback. However, the students were not held responsible or accountable for the assignments. Second, I teach computer science and physics, so I was already using technology in my classroom. My students were used to using Google Classroom, Documents, and Sheets. I felt my students would easily make the transition to online learning.
My anonymous 16-question survey was split into three parts - questions about them, questions about my online classroom, and questions about school overall. I had a mixture of scaled questions and open-ended questions. First I asked what they valued in education. Then I asked questions about their engagement with my classroom and what I did that was good and where I needed to improve. Finally, I asked them what they miss about brick and mortar school, and what they liked and didn’t like with online school. My final question was “any other thoughts?”
I was humbled by their perspectives and thoughtful considerations. While some of the feedback was something I could correct right away (“get a better camera, I had a hard time seeing in class” and “slow down”), some of the feedback spoke to my heart and what I am beginning to understand about the student COVID experience. So today, I am going to focus on what my students valued, what they need and what they miss and don’t miss about the brick and mortar school.
The first set of questions were designed to help my students first focus on the learning context and their educational values. My first question was “What do you value in education?” 67% of my students suggested that gaining knowledge and skills was valuable to them.
“I do not want to take a class just to pass and advance to the next level. Instead, I want to understand and grasp the topic at hand. By understanding what I have learned, I can take this knowledge and become a successful adult. “
22% of my students valued the teachers:
“Learning challenging material, but with the help of my teachers.”
“A teacher who is always ready to help and makes themselves available. I also get a lot more out of in person teaching, but I understand that it isn’t an option right now. “
The rest of the students valued having fun, learning for the real world, and for humanity.
“I value anything that benefits the welfare of humanity. Mainly, I value education that makes me better than I was the day before, not only intellectually but makes me a better human. “
The students’ answers about educational values generally made me feel that our students are engaged in learning and do care about how we teach.
My second question was “I wish my teachers knew…” I normally ask this same question as a test question during the first semester in the fall. I am often blown away by the variety of personal information and insights students will reveal. I was just as impressed by the candid responses and different perspectives I got in my online class survey. Three general themes ran through the survey answers: 1) students struggle with a lack of motivation, 2) online learning can be hard, time consuming and not as good as being in person, and 3) being stuck at home is taxing on mental health. Students gave genuine answers.
“I wish my teachers knew that we as students do not understand the topic as well as the teacher does. Students do not like the feeling of being downgraded because "the topic is easy" or barely teaching us because the teacher thinks we understand.”
“I wish my teachers knew how much pressure I put on myself and how grateful I am to them for being patient and kind.”
“I am infinitely gracious to those whom teach with respect, and whom understand they are still very similar to me, as I am human and so are they. “
“While I try to do most of my work for most of my classes, if I did absolutely everything for all 7 of my classes and went to every Google meet, I wouldn't have time to do anything else.”
“How my motivation to learn has been diminished more and more since being stuck at home. I try to stay busy, and for the most part I do stay pretty active, but I do have some days (or weeks) where I can’t bring myself to do much at all. “
Reading candid thoughts from my students helps me to tailor my classroom to their needs and be more reflective on my goals for them. I started to include information on my classroom announcements about social emotional learning, reaching out to guidance if they find themselves overwhelmed, and getting outside to hike and enjoy the outdoors. I also encourage them to contact me directly through email or office hours. Finally, I made sure I talked with each student as they came into the digital classroom to see how they were and how they were doing with physics content.
At the end of the survey I asked my students “what do you miss about coming to the brick and mortar high school?” There were no surprises in that many students reported missing friends, teachers and interactions with people (47%). Interesting enough, students also missed motivation and the routine (23%) and hands-on learning (17%).
“ I miss seeing my friends and teachers. I also miss being in the classroom because I feel like I learn much better that way.”
This is good news for those of us concerned with brick and mortar schools going the way of horse and buggies. Interactions with people, routines, and hands-on learning are our strongholds in physical schools. Only a small percentage (12%) suggested that they didn’t miss much.
“I do not believe I would have grown as much as I have if I had continued going to brick and mortar school. Education is so much more than a grade.”
Next, in comparison, I asked the students “What do you like about online learning?” The most common answers were the ability to set their own learning pace (24%) and have a flexible time schedule (24%) and sleeping in (12%).
“You can do it in the comfort of your own home and at any time you want.”
But a significant group of students (18%) said they like nothing about online learning. Only 6% of the students liked learning without receiving grades. Overall, I am not surprised by these results. Online learning does offer flexibility and freedom. But, I was surprised more students didn’t suggest lack of grades being a good thing. As an educator, I have always dreamed about a world where grades didn’t matter, but the reality is that our society values putting a number to effort. Is there a place for curiosity and learning for the joy of learning in the high school?
My last question was “What do you not like about online learning?”, Students had a wide variety of dislikes about online learning too. Many of the complaints had to do with the lack of schedule or accountability.
“The lack of real schedule, to me it didn’t feel like a school day, just a day where I did some extra work.”
“I don't like that work isn't mandatory, that we don't get grades. Even if I do all of the work, I feel like I'll be behind next year because of how long it has been since I've had an honest test, or actual grades.”
Other students felt overwhelmed, unorganized, and unable to communicate:
“Sometimes hard to keep on track with work”
“It's harder for me because I like to be able to physically write things down on paper, and I would like to be able to ask questions in person because I feel like I get more out of it that way.”
Overall, online learning is just not the same as in person. Students didn’t like staring at the computer all day, not being pushed, feeling unproductive and were concerned about falling grades.
“I believe that myself and others have lost motivation ...Online learning is not the same as physical, real life learning.”
Many of these complaints about online learning are going to be hard to overcome. But we must put thought into these shortcomings if we have to continue with virtual school into the fall. As educators, we have to help our students build a consistent schedule, get organized and become self-motivated so we all can find success in this new digital world into which we have been thrust.
At the end of the survey I asked my students if they had other thoughts. I was encouraged by the general positivity of my students and their resilience.
“I enjoyed your class while it lasted”
“I think online learning has potential, but I'm still not ready to go all in.”
“Thank you for doing all you could to make this year better through all the horrible events that have occurred.”
“I am very happy with your transition to online learning. Even with this big change I am still able to learn and hear your silly jokes during the meets. Thank you for truly caring about my education along with other students, it really shows.”
And understood their sense of loss:
“I'm going to miss my high school, believe it or not, and all the teachers that believed in me when I couldn't believe in myself. I originally thought that when I would leave high school, I'd coming running out cheering and happy to get away from it, but now I'd give my left leg to attend one more in-person class, to bump into someone in the hall, to hear other kids laughing, to see my teachers in person, to have my ears attacked by the sounds of slamming lockers and the loud, boisterous teachers in the school, and to say goodbye to the lunch ladies in the cafeteria.”
*Sniff* So what have I learned from my survey?
First, I found that my students really do care about education, learning and working with their teachers. I also now know that they carry a great load - school, work, family and activities - and the COVID lock down has made motivation and mental health even more of a challenge. I also believe that there is still a future for a brick and mortar school where we can help students one-on-one, give them a routine and time to interact and learn with other people. But, we also must learn to embrace this digital world and think outside the brick-and-mortar box. Online learning does have many benefits including pace and freedom to follow your curiosity and passion. While my survey will not help me predict the future for the next school year, I know the future will be in good hands with the students who have learned to thrive in our new normal.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee