Distance Learning: Interview with Teachers

In spring 2020, because of the Covid-19 pandemic was spread to Slovakia, the education process at LEAF Academy transitioned into distance learning in order to protect our health of the students and staffulty members. After interviewing the students, now it is the right time for a reflection. We have asked our actual and former teachers – Geraldine Mukumbi, Peter Wetzler, and Andrej Zeman exactly the same questions about their findings and ability to adapt to distance learning. 

1. How did you adapt to the distance learning process?

Geraldine: 
“I had to constantly remind myself that I was surviving a global pandemic. This meant adjusting expectations and being kinder to myself and others. Yes, we were innovating, and redefining and adapting. We were doing a lot of hard creative work. But at the core, we were and still are surviving a pandemic. Remembering this allows me to free myself from the expectation of recreating things as they were. Rather I focus on the small things I can do now..”

Peter: 
“In the beginning it was very hard to find the best way to approach it. I did not know how often I should be meeting students, how many and in what form the study materials should look like, and probably the hardest part was searching for the best way to assess students. Thankfully our deans reacted immediately, and created an online document with lots of tips and tricks. We all had access to it, and even many of us shared their tips there. I think the crucial thing was the timing – we got the most support in the beginning when almost everything was uncertain.

But I have to honestly admit that in my case it was generally simple, because I do not have a family, so I did not have to align my personal and school-related life that much. When I was talking to my friends and colleagues that have families, I was in a much less complicated situation.”

Andrej: 
“It took some time, but it was becoming more and more manageable and even enjoyable. In a sense, I wish that the school could continue as the classes and I was just getting accustomed to online learning more and more. Up to this COVID-19 situation, I had been teaching only small groups of students online and so it really does take some time learning how to work together in a way that there is a meaningful impact.”

2. What do you consider as benefits and drawbacks of distance learning?

Geraldine: 
“Distance learning creates more opportunities for interaction across the world. It opens up access to education (for some) in new ways. IN a way this situation has forced us to make tough decisions about what is important in our classroom.s We are forced to decide what we can do without. My personal struggle is missing the human interactions that are central to the classroom experience. Sitting behind a screen is not the same as walking into a classroom full of engaged learners.”

Peter: 
“I see two main benefits: first is that I am really an owner of my time. What do I mean by saying this? I have never cooked and spent so much time in nature as during this distance learning period. Since the amount of taught classes decreased, I was able to be more flexible. For example I had spent the whole weekend preparing for the classes and checking homeworks of the students, because I knew that during the week I wanted to go for a hike. Second benefit is that the amount of materials that had to be ready for the class was much higher than in the regular learning process. On one hand it took me much more time to deliver a meaningful class, on the other hand now I have tons of materials that I can use in the future.

When it comes to the struggles, the main one for me was how to keep the students accountable and responsible. For everyone it is incredibly hard to study and learn in the environment that we all take as an environment where we chill and rest (a.k.a our home), and when my students suddenly got a lot of flexibility, things became harder for many of them. Some were not submitting their homeworks not only because of what is described above, but also because they suddenly had to really search for many information which would normally be just shared with them in the class. Some of the students were used to getting the information from a teacher “served on the plate”, and suddenly they really had to search for it. Eventually, I think this positively impacted their learning.”

Andrej: 
“The obstacles, as I see them are these: You don’t always see the students (their cameras might be turned off); you don’t hear their reactions (their mics might be turned off); it can be difficult to facilitate lively discussions of the sort you can have in the normal classes, and, of course, some technical difficulties you will probably encounter on the way. On the other hand, it opens up new sharing options, presenting techniques, and reliance on digital resources. It also makes it much easier to observe other classes and have guests coming in. I think the last one is the most undervalued asset: This online world opens the possibilities of having guest speakers in your lessons more frequently, without them having to leave their homes!”

3. How do you perceive the main differences between face-to-face and digital social interactions in education?

Geraldine: 
“Digital interactions feel utilitarian. We aim to minimize the number of meetings because they are exhausting and we encourage more individual work. Face to face is more expansive. There is a depth to the interactions because we can engage more and pick on social cues that can not be communicated behind a screen. What I miss most about being in a physical school building are the random unplanned conversations that inspire creativity and connection.”

Peter: 
“When I had an online class, sometimes it felt like I was just talking to myself 🙂 So the instant feedback from students that you get in the class just by looking at their gestures, postures, and face expressions was missing. A lot of the topics that I was talking about required drawing and immediate students activity, and it was much harder to use a paint or online whiteboard for drawing compared to a regular whiteboard that we had been using in classes. I could not just walk around the class while the students were solving a problem task, and I had to find a way to do it online, and still see how they are doing in real time.”

Andrej: 
“I admit this is to me the biggest downside of the online education. You generally don’t see or hear all the interactions you have in the real class. This includes gestures, smiles, smirks, laughs, smirks, facial mimics, and all the subtle visual/auditory dynamics that is to a significant degree compromised in the online world.”

4. In what way could you imagine distance learning as the successor of traditional education?

Geraldine: 
“While I acknowledge the opportunities that digital learning creates I am hesitant to think that traditional classrooms will disappear. Face to face interactions is pivotal to learning. What the past few months have shown is that digital learning offers access that can enhance the traditional classroom.”

Peter: 
“Honestly, it seems to me that it proved something that we have been talking about a lot in the department – Is it really necessary to have teachers in order for the students to learn and gain the new knowledge? And I believe the answer is “no”. Most of the traditional education is based on a teacher who is standing in front of the students and is repeating the knowledge written in textbooks and other resources (And I do this, too!). But if we start teaching students early how to search for the information, how to ask relevant questions, and how to do active reading (all of this is part of critical thinking), traditional education should change and evolve! It needs to evolve in a way that us, teachers, will be rather developing 21st century skills, and focus less on delivering the knowledge.

But we also need to ask the question if Slovakia has enough teachers, who can and want to go this way. And here I have doubts. Many schools have been struggling with adapting to online learning, and did not get enough support from their employers. Every institution and school is only as strong as its members (students and teachers), and if the teachers do not want to innovate their old-fashioned teaching methods, the school system will never improve.”

Andrej: 
“For now, I see it as complementary and should not be a replacement. It should start gradually, in increments. That is to say, start by having a speaker through a Hangout call or recording one of your sessions as an online class. How did that go? What should be changed? What worked and what didn’t? At the same time, we should experiment, but experiment in small steps and with constant feedback. In the future, we could move towards more and more autonomy on part of the learners but there will still need to be some form of regular feedback from the teachers (which could be done online, of course).”

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