OVERCOMING ZOOM LEARNING




If you go to a rock concert, it is not uncommon for people to talk to one another during the musical sets. The music is so loud that it is unlikely that such conversations will disturb anyone. The same behavior is seen during church services among the young as the expectations of social decorum there are also shaped by the rock concert the night before.


The same is true of Zoom-based online learning. The expectation of appropriate social decorum is shaped by one’s typical behavior watching television or YouTube videos on one’s phone: multitasking and informality prevails. What suffers with such expectations is learning. The behavioral expectations of an in-person classroom are typically abandoned in a virtual Zoom classroom.


Most students have not been taught how to behave in such a virtual classroom setting. This is not surprising, because most students have not been taught how to learn in an in-person classroom either. The shift to a dominant virtual learning environment has been abrupt, inconsistent, and unwelcomed. Students are being forced to go back and forth from in-person learning one day and virtual the next. Academically, this is about as disruptive as joint-custody in a divorce where the child spends half the week with the mother and the rest with the father creating a constant state of disequilibrium and sense of homelessness.


After a year of such on and off virtual learning cause by the pandemic, the result of this educational experiment is in. Students consistently lose, particularly minority students. By the end of June 2021, students of color are expected to be about a year behind. McKinsey & Company data suggests on average, the mean student lost the equivalent of three months of learning in mathematics and one-and-a-half months of learning in reading. The learning loss was especially acute in schools that predominantly serve students of color, where scores were 59 percent of the historical average in math and 77 percent in reading. In almost every case, virtual learning has created a learning deficit, a deficit that school systems are poorly equipped to overcome once in-person classrooms resume. This is, in effect, a generational learning crisis.


Moreover, for all the talk of “turning the corner” and resuming “normality,” it is most likely that the impact of the pandemic will continue for another year or two. With the advent of new more toxic strains of Covid-19 emerging, with the slow rollout of the vaccine, and the increase in reinfections from the new strains, the prospects of “herd immunity” and a return to a pandemic-free reality become more and more remote. Moreover, the likelihood of the educational community continuing with some form of “hybrid-learning,” where part of the instruction is virtual, is likely to become the new educational norm.


It is for these reasons that it is imperative that students learn how to learn in a virtual classroom. They must be taught Zoom learning study skills. Here are four beginning steps to be followed.


1. Context Matters: Dress for the Class

The setting for the Zoom classroom matters. The student should ideally be at a desk in a well-lit quiet place. The temptation of informality must be avoided. One should dress for the class as if one were going to school. This may seem like a draconian suggestion, as many adults in business only dress from the waist up for their Zoom calls. The reason for this step is that it reinforces in the student a series of expectations that are needed for learning to take place. As long as the home Zoom classroom is approached as if one is watching TV in one’s pajamas, real learning goes right out the door because the expectation of informality shapes the mindset of the student in the Zoom classroom. Dress for the class.


2. Maintain Accountability: Be Seen

The social isolation and lack of accountability has made truancy increase. Schools are scrambling to find ways to monitor virtual classroom attendance. In some cases, Child Protective Service has gotten involved with threats of parental fines. But an even more widespread problem than “virtual truancy” is “virtual inattention.”


Virtual learning is not quite homeschooling in that parents are still deferring the responsibility of instruction to the schoolteacher. But the schoolteacher cannot effectively do his or her job without the conscious support of the reluctant quasi-homeschool parent. Without the parent’s oversight it is highly unlikely that the student will maximize the Zoom classroom. One frustrated parent reports to USA Today about her third-grade daughter, “She’d never met her teacher in person. Unsupervised, she was up and down in her seat. She was leaving the room. She was toggling over to YouTube. She’s spends long frustrating stretches tying to figure out how to lay out a document or submit her work. There were missing assignments.” And inevitable tears! Her grades, enjoyment, and learning all suffered. For virtual learning to be successful, parents must be involved.


Not the least of which, the student’s video needs to be always on. Students seeking to learn in a virtual context need maximum accountability. The most basic is that the student must be seen by the teacher, if not ideally also by the parent.


3. Tools to Remember: Take Notes

It is necessary for the student to take notes during the Zoom class. This is particularly difficult for elementary-aged students. But minimally, they should keep a list of what was covered in the days’ class. Older students need to try to figure out what is the big idea that the teacher is seeking to communicate in the day’s class. Every good teacher in their lesson plan has one major point of instruction for the day in each subject. The student should not leave the class without having a written record of that big idea. If necessary, ask the teacher before the class ends. What is the main thing you want me to learn today?


4. Do Homework with Others: Avoid Constant Isolation

Zoom classes are inevitably socially isolating. On top of these classes, there is also required homework. Normally, homework should be done alone. But social isolation on top of social isolation becomes counterproductive to learning. Students should do their home within the company of their family. The cycle of isolation needs to be broken. If the student’s homework can be done conversationally with a parent, grandparent, or older sibling, it will make the learning experience much more palatable for the young student. At some point. learning needs to be a social experience.


One must remember that education for most students in the United States is coerced. Children do not primarily go to school to learn, but to be with their friends or to play their favorite sports. Learning is usually the last thing on their schooling priority list. Students cannot learn unless they want to learn. Mere coerced presence—and especially a coerced virtual presence—hardly counts for a learning experience. So realistic parents are going to have to find a way to bring some of these other priorities—friends and sports—back into the virtual learning experience if they are not to lose their student completely. Learning cannot be for most students an ongoing experience of social isolation. At some point, learning must return to an in-person conversation, even if not in the short-term in-person instruction. Make homework an in-person conversation.


Zoom instruction is going to be with us for some time. It is not ideal for the student or for optimal learning, particularly in the lower grades, for students of color, or for weaker students. To overcome these liabilities, expectation need to be raised, accountability increased, memory enhanced, and conversation encouraged. Grandparents, parents, and teachers should all feel sorry for what so many of our youngest, disadvantaged, and weakest students are experiencing now during their most formative years. We can all help by following these four basic guidelines.


Dr. John Seel is a Christian educator, former high school history teacher and prep school headmaster. He is the author of a forthcoming book on study skills, Study Smart: A Christian Guide to Academic Success (Whithorn Press, 2021).