School & District Management

Virtual Teaching: Skill of the Future? Or Not So Much?

By Elizabeth Heubeck — April 20, 2020 7 min read
Kelly Dighero, a 3rd grade teacher at Phoebe Hearst Elementary School in Sacramento, Calif., gives a thumbs-up during her first online meeting with students and parents on the front lawn of her home.
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Before the coronavirus, few K-12 schools expected educators to be prepared for—much less have real-world experience—teaching students remotely.

But with 55 million American schoolchildren out of traditional classrooms for prolonged periods and many schools attempting to provide some form of virtual learning, will this change after the pandemic ends?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that post-pandemic expectations will depend largely on schools’ current preparedness for digital learning.

Leaders in some districts—such as Florida’s Miami-Dade schools—say digital teaching will be a skill they will build even more in their existing teacher corps and something they will look for in future hires. In other districts—particularly in remote areas where most students have little to no access to the internet—the prospects for making digital instruction a requisite part of a current or future teachers’ portfolio are much lower.

Still, experts say trying to predict whether the coronavirus-forced experiment with widespread online learning will fundamentally change what skills districts search for in teachers is a folly at this stage.

“I think that anybody who says ‘Here’s what’s going to happen after this’ is either lying or deluded,” said John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Education Group, an educational consulting firm.

‘Skill Set We Must Look For’

Some district leaders, though, have a very clear vision of where they see virtual teaching skills heading.

Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent in Miami-Dade, is one.

“That’s a skill set we must look for in hiring new teachers to the workforce,” Carvalho said.

Miami-Dade is a large, high-poverty district, but is ahead of most big-city school systems when it comes to technology-based teaching.

The district of 345,000 students—73 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced-price meals—is vulnerable to occasional extended closures because of hurricanes. That spurred the district to invest in technology that would allow for distance learning as needed, said Carvalho, fueled by a voter-approved $1.2 billion school bond referendum in 2012. The district has one of the more extensive 1-to-1 computing programs in the country.

Carvalho says professional development for teachers and opportunities for family learning also help meet the district’s distance learning goals. The Parent Academy, a free year-round initiative, increases parents’ engagement in students’ education.

In late March, prior to transitioning to full-time distance learning, Miami-Dade teachers participated in several days of professional development with a focus on both how to manage technological platforms and how to be flexible in their expectations for students’ academic performance while still holding them accountable for their efforts to learn and do the work.

The Kettle-Moraine school district in Wales, Wis., where about 13 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, was also well positioned for virtual learning when schools closed: Every student in middle and high school has a working device and internet connectivity. Within two weeks of closing during the pandemic, every elementary family either confirmed access or was provided a device and internet connectivity.

Still, Superintendent Patricia F. Deklotz describes the transition to the virtual school day, now in full swing, as “a very heavy lift”—for teachers, students, and families. “Many people expected it to be easy,” she said.

As her district migrated to a virtual classroom, Deklotz emphasized the importance of bringing the existing culture—particularly student–teacher relationships—along. She acknowledges that this isn’t always easy. Figuring out how to connect with and motivate students who are disengaged, said Deklotz, is the most challenging aspect of what her district’s educators are trying to do.

But Deklotz is bullish on the post-pandemic demand for teachers who can teach effectively online. She’s already imagining that questions about teachers’ experience with distance learning will become a central part of her district’s interview process.

“I would ask [candidates]: ‘How do you develop relationships with students through a virtual environment? How do you check for understanding?’” Deklotz said.

Beth Knapp, a high school English teacher at the private, all-boys Gilman School in Baltimore, Md., finds that part of online teaching especially challenging in the month since her school shifted to virtual instruction.

“I rely a lot on seeing my students, observing their affect, checking in with them,” Knapp said. Since the school building closed in March and pivoted to teaching virtually, Knapp said she’s found the transition “intense and exhausting.”

But Knapp is seeing her students succeed in the virtual environment. “So many of them are investing in the literature that we are studying, and they are sharing really impressive analysis with me in a variety of different ways,” she said.

Tech Equity Is a Factor

Wide disparities in technology access and teachers’ pre-pandemic experience with distance learning cloud predictions for its future demand. While some schools are providing virtual instruction, teaching new assignments, and continuing to assess students, others are doing their best to simply maintain connectivity with students—not necessarily virtually. In an ongoing survey of 82 school districts by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, 46 were providing instruction to all grade levels, while 11 were providing instruction to some grade levels, as of April 20.

Watson, of the Evergreen Education Group, worries that the sudden shift to virtual learning will leave educators—especially those with negligible experience teaching online—with a negative impression of it, preventing schools from embracing it in the future.

Gearing up to teach effectively online takes a significant amount of time, said Watson. Optimally, he suggests, it takes a minimum of six months to prepare for delivering an online program effectively. Other online learning experts concur.

“There’s no way you can create a course designed for face-to-face and wisely adapt that to an online format in just a few days,” said Michael F. Young, an expert in online learning in the University of Connecticut’s department of educational psychology.

Signs that teachers have struggled to convert to distance learning abound. Since the pandemic forced school closures, the nonprofit Global Online Academy has offered educators its course, Designing for Online Learning, free of charge. Over three weeks, 12,000 teachers took it. In an Ed Week Research Center survey of K-12 educators from late March, 58 percent of teachers said it was difficult for them to tell if students were learning or needed more help.

‘It’s Not Worth the Investment in Time’

As some teachers work to engage their students in a virtual environment, others haven’t even been able to try, stymied by inadequate or uneven access to technology. Those conditions aren’t likely to change in remote communities once the coronavirus subsides.

“It’s not worth the investment in time to learn that [technology] skill set, because if you were to operate virtually, you would leave out a good portion of our kids,” said Joanna Burt-Kinderman, a district mathematics coach in West Virginia’s Pocahontas County school district. She estimates that nearly half of students in the rural district don’t have functional broadband access and worries that moving instruction virtually would exacerbate equity issues.

Given the inequities within the district, its teachers are using multiple methods to deliver education. They’re mailing packets to students without internet access; posting instruction and assignments on the internet for those with access; and, for students with sufficient connectivity, teachers are sharing interactive and video tools.

Seventy percent of the Pocahontas district lies within state or national forest—making it impossible to rely on property taxes to fund their schools. Also, despite receiving $126.3 million in a 2010 federal stimulus grant to expand broadband to West Virginia, that promise to state residents remains largely unfulfilled.

Lack of technology infrastructure aside, the district’s teachers face bigger immediate worries.

“We have to focus on if our kids are OK and if they’re fed,” said Burt-Kinderman, who notes that the issue of virtual learning among her district’s families—a disproportionately high percentage of whom live in poverty—is “very secondary” to the basic concerns they grapple with, like food insecurity and opioid addiction.

For many teachers, the pandemic has exposed the dire need to connect with students—in whatever ways they’re able.

“We know our [students], but this has taken that knowing to a new level,” said Burt-Kinderman. She says she’d favor teaching candidates willing to connect with students similarly; those who, in her words, “See teaching as a building of community and a connection between human beings, first.”

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