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Zoom University: Remote Learning Becomes the New Educational Norm

Over the past couple of weeks, our community, country, and world has gone through immense change in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For Northwest, the most noticeable change has been our switch to remote learning, giving our community the ability to stay connected while practicing social distancing. Social distancing has been essential in combating the spread of COVID: by moving our education to the safety of our homes, we as a community are helping to keep each other healthy, and to avoid overwhelming health care facilities and workers.

Remote learning has gradually become the new norm across the country since the first U.S. case of COVID was confirmed in January. For many schools, remote learning became necessary after governors and local governments announced the closure of schools. However, how do these countless online learning structures differ from each other? In today’s world of modern technology, there are countless programs to help continue our education. From Northwest, to other Seattle schools, to large universities, everyone has found different ways to stay connected during this trying time.         

At Northwest, our transition to online learning started about two weeks before spring break and has evolved since to a well running schedule. Still based on our two week block schedule, classes are now given 45 minute periods, with the school day running from 9:00 to 12:45. While most teachers started out using Microsoft Teams as their program of choice, some have switched over to Zoom. According to recent feedback, Zoom can be preferable because it allows students to change their personal background and view all of their classmates’ faces.

The transition to online schooling has been relatively simple for lecture style subjects (like math and science), but it can get a bit more complicated when applied to classes like social dance or photography. A junior from the Lindy Hop class at Northwest commented that, since his class is founded on a partner dance, it’s incredibly hard to achieve the same amount of work on their own. However, teachers have gotten creative; the solution for Lindy Hop has been having students record themselves practicing steps and sending in the clips for feedback. While the more creative and collaborative subjects can be harder to translate into an online curriculum, it sounds like everyone is doing a great job adapting to this situation. While it’s taken time to work out all the kinks, our new virtual Haüs is now running smoothly. 

To see how virtual learning looks at some other schools, let’s travel several (virtual) blocks up to Seattle Academy. Sitting at home over text, I interviewed SAAS senior Sydney G. about her experience with online learning. Her online schedule is quite similar to our own: “SAAS’ remote learning pretty much exactly mimics our normal days. We meet with each class every other day. Although each class and teacher varies, it’s typical for us to meet together on Zoom for about 20 minutes to explain what the class will look like, and then we sign off and work individually; the teacher remains on the call if we have questions.” One unique addition, noted Sydney, is their new ‘We Wednesday’, “where we don’t have classes but we meet with our advisory, clubs, and sports teams via Zoom.”

Sydney was very positive when speaking about her experience with remote learning, and how her community has handled it. “My teachers’ reaction has been the best I could have imagined. I appreciate when teachers meet via Zoom at the start of class to give us an opportunity to ask live questions, whether through Zoom or email. Most of my teachers have lowered their expectations for work and have gotten rid of most penalties for late work.” This accessibility is something Sydney emphasized is essential right now as a student. She also noted that she has much less homework in general. 

Sydney’s only critique for SAAS’s remote learning model was the new “We Wednesdays” program; “The school’s intent was to decrease screen time for the week [through We Wednesday], however, people with lots of activities have found that these days they spend the longest time on their computers.” We both agreed that extended screen time is a big concern right now, but difficult to avoid.

Overall, Sydney has been very pleased with her community’s switch to online learning: “Teachers have adapted quickly, and recognize this is a very difficult time and have lowered expectations which the student body has appreciated.” It’s nice to see the success that many have found in their leap to online learning. With so many schools in the same situation, we can hopefully help each other perfect our own online learning programs and support each other through this challenging time.

High schools haven’t been alone in remote learning; from elementary schools up to the university level, those with the resources to continue a remote learning model have continued schooling as well. For those living on campus at their colleges or universities, this also meant that a majority of students were sent home for the remainder of the semester. To get insight on this, I chatted with my sister Hope, who returned several weeks ago as a junior from the University of Portland. Hope’s college schedule looks a bit different than our high school one: “During a normal week, I have five classes. On Monday and Wednesday, I have one prerecorded lecture and one live lecture on Zoom. On Tuesday, I have one discussion board where we just have to answer a prompt and a live lecture on Zoom. Thursday, I have two Zoom Lectures. Then on Friday, I have one prerecorded lecture.” Hope said that she has used many of the same programs as Northwest, including Microsoft Teams and Zoom, but also included a couple others like Moodle (which is similar to Oba). 

Hope admitted that, while the transition has been hard for everyone, she can see how it was especially difficult for her professors; “I feel like the biggest change so far has been exams. Since professors are not able to monitor the tests, students now have access to their notes. Some of my professors have switched to short essay responses instead of just fill-in-the-blank questions.” She also noted how things can get rather quiet: “One thing my professors have mentioned is the difficulty in having class discussions. It feels awkward talking on Zoom, so many students don’t talk at all which leaves little space for discussion on anything.”

One big challenge Hope noticed was establishing a new daily academic schedule at home: “At school, I would have classes, meetings, work, and I would fit homework in between those activities. The only thing I have now are classes. This lack of schedule had made it difficult to motivate myself to do homework.” She did note that her workload has changed with this transition: “Some of my professors are aware that this can be a difficult situation for some, so they have been a little easier on us. For example, classes have given extensions on essays.”

When asked how she was doing with this transition, Hope responded with a big sigh: “It’s ok, but I would much rather be at school. Online learning makes it difficult to ask the professor questions during office hours or after class and has also made it more challenging to do work with others. I often worked on homework or projects with my friends in the library, but now with time differences and varying schedules, this can be hard to do.”

This is a strange time for all students, from kindergarten to those in higher education. While it can be difficult adjusting to such a new style of learning, it’s amazing that we have the capability to stay connected in troubling times such as these. However, this is not a reality for everyone. This pandemic has highlighted many pressing issues of inequity across countless communities, from limited healthcare access to the virus’ disproportionate effects on minority groups. Social distancing (and the ability to stay home from work) is a privilege that many do not have, and remote learning is no different. Reliable access to a computer and the internet, a quiet area to participate in class, and time and space to complete homework are all things necessary to remote learning, but far from accessible to all. 

While not having these things can create difficult situations from those inside communities like Northwest, another pressing issue during this time are the institutions who cannot set up a remote learning program. Financial barriers and concerns of equity have prevented many districts from joining in on this new form of education. This has created future concern of an even bigger divide between those students who had access to remote learning during this time, and those who did not. Remote learning, while helpful and guaranteed for some, possess a number of new threats to the already inequitable reality of the American education system.

With this uncertain future, Northwest is lucky to continue school, allowing us to feel a bit more grounded in a familiar daily schedule. As we move forward, remember that everyone is still new to this, and find ways outside our community to support your fellow community members during this difficult time.

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