Special Report
Classroom Technology

We Love Virtual Learning: Students, Parents Explain Why

By Alyson Klein — January 06, 2021 7 min read
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Until recently, Aiden, a Minnesota 7th grader, had a rocky K-12 career. He got into fights. He was suspended multiple times. He sat alone in the cafeteria. Though he is gifted, his string of Bs and Cs didn’t reflect that, partly because his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder made it tough to focus.

Now, Aiden, 12, who is also on the autism spectrum, is having his best school year yet.

“The kids at my school were just mean and annoying and distracting me from doing work during class,” he said. This year, with all virtual classes, “I feel relieved and able to concentrate on school.”

Aiden’s grades have shot up to mostly As. He’s on the top honor roll for the first time, and he is finally beginning to figure out how to keep himself organized, a key goal of his Individualized Education Plan.

Aiden, who is being identified by his first name only to protect his privacy, is a fortunate exception during COVID-19. Many students—especially those in special education—are struggling with virtual or hybrid learning models during the pandemic. Eighty-three percent of educators say kids are making less progress in English/language arts than they were before the virus hit, according to an August survey by the EdWeek Research Center.

But, for a small number of students, the pandemic cloud has a thick silver lining: They are now learning better than ever.

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A childhood photo of Alyson Klein, just before the start of 6th grade.
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Many of these unexpected standouts fit a similar profile, said Ellen Braaten, the director of the learning and assessment program at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital.

The students whose work has improved through virtual learning often have “some level of anxiety, tend to be more introverted, tend to have a history of some social issues,” she said. Or they may just be the kind of kid who learns better when working independently, she added. Many, like Aiden, are considered “twice exceptional,” meaning they are gifted students with significant learning differences.

With online instruction, Aiden no longer complains about teachers going too slowly because he can speed through the content that is easy for him through asynchronous lessons that he completes at his own pace. If his mind wanders during a tougher subject, he can take his time puzzling through it, and even watch a video of the lesson.

In the past, Aiden’s teachers would text his mom, Paula, about his disruptive behavior. Now that those messages have stopped, Paula realizes how stressful it all was.

“It is pandemic time, and I should be worried and more anxious but I’m actually more relaxed now,” said Paula, a former teacher who preferred to use her first name only to protect her privacy.

It is pandemic time, and I should be worried and more anxious but I’m actually more relaxed now.

For Many Students, ‘Normal Wasn’t Good’

The coronavirus crisis has given schools a rare chance to rethink how they are serving students like Aiden, experts say.

“There’s this overwhelming desire to get back to normal. And normal wasn’t good” for many kids, said Bob Cunningham, the executive director of learning development at Understood, an organization that works on behalf of students with learning differences. “If our goal is to get back there, then we’ve missed an opportunity.”

Educators and parents are wrestling with how best to take advantage of that opportunity as they consider the sudden success of students who seemed unreachable less than a year ago.

For instance, for most of the 2019-20 school year, special education teacher Melody Bradley, a 21-year veteran educator, was in a state of high stress and even beginning to consider other career options. A part of the reason: One student, Precious, who has significant learning differences and behavioral issues.

But this school year, with her Texas school doing online only instruction for many kids, Bradley feels like she is dealing with a whole different Precious. The teenager has brought her C level grades up to mostly As and Bs and is motivated to graduate this year.

Being able to do lessons at home has given Precious, 18, the freedom to ask for help, something she was embarrassed to do before, Bradley said. She has more autonomy to complete her assignments, and she doesn’t have to contend with the school rules that bothered her as an older student. Plus, she’s no longer worried about anyone’s behavior but her own.

“Some people just don’t go to school to actually learn. And I was one of those people last year,” said Precious, who is using only her first name to protect her privacy. “I get easily triggered with certain things people tell me. It gets me in a bad mood,” and then it’s tough to concentrate on schoolwork.

Precious, who wants to pursue a career in health care, is likely to graduate before in-person classes resume. But Bradley is thinking ahead about the lessons learned for how to meet the needs of students like her. Should the district consider offering more virtual instruction-only options for some students in the future?

Better Learning at Home

Kevin Wofford, a 17-year-old senior at a public high school in Chicago, has a similar story. This fall, he begged his mother to pick up his report card at school, so that she could see he had risen above his string of Cs and Ds to become a straight-A student.

That’s not what his teacher, Daphne Whitington, expected when she saw him on her roster this school year. “He had a reputation,” she said. “He would act the fool.”

Getting away from the personality clashes and violence in school has helped Wofford focus his full attention on his classwork. “I feel like the man now. I left all that drama stuff,” he said. “I’ve never been on the honor roll until this year.”

Part of what helped Wofford step up: He’s a technology whiz. At the beginning of the school year, he helped his classmates and teachers master the intricacies of different online learning platforms. That evolved into assisting others with their schoolwork and asking the kind of smart questions that help others learn, Whitington said.

Wofford, who wants to pursue a career in graphic design, said he would be up for finishing his K-12 education online if it’s an option.

Stephanie, a teacher in North Carolina who requested that her last name not be used, has also given the idea some serious thought as she has watched this school year unfold for her introverted 16-year-old daughter, who has attention difficulties.

The high school junior gets excellent grades. But she doesn’t often feel comfortable talking in class because many students can’t relate to her cerebral speaking style. She’s found it’s much easier to participate in an online chat box, where it feels acceptable to use a scholarly tone. And she’s more focused.

Her teachers say, “she’s the chattiest one in the class, which we never heard in 16 years,” Stephanie said. But she worries about what her daughter would be missing out on if she spent the rest of high school behind a computer screen.

Experts agree that there are no easy answers here. Having a child do online learning during a pandemic, when everyone else is in the same boat, is very different from keeping them out of school buildings for the long haul, Cunningham said.

“If the vast majority of kids are going back to school on a full-time basis and you decide your kid is not going to do that, then there’s a marginalization that occurs,” he said. “Your own kids are going to look at otherness and difference.”

What’s more, asking kids to navigate a tough social scene is good preparation for life’s challenges, Braaten said. “Kids need to stretch themselves. They need to get out of their comfort zone,” she said. “That is just part of building resilience.”

When students return to in-person instruction, schools have an “obligation” to try to replicate what worked in the online environment, said Jerome Schultz, a former special education teacher turned clinical neuropsychologist who is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. But, he added, that’s not an easy ask, particularly if the problem is bullying.

If they are doing better in a virtual learning environment and go back to a physical environment, their skills may tank or flat line again.

One way to begin figuring out how to tackle the problem: Ask the students, Schultz said. Before schools reopen for in-person instruction, teachers should have kids write about how learning virtually has been good, and not so good, for them as individuals. They should ask questions like: What are you looking forward to when you come back? What are you worried about?

“It’s important to look at why the kids who are thriving are thriving. If they are doing better in a virtual learning environment and go back to a physical environment, their skills may tank or flat line again,” Schultz said. “You’re coming back to an environment that was toxic to you before.”

‘I Would Never Have Tried It’

Stephanie is likely to send her daughter back to her brick-and-mortar school when it reopens. She wants her to continue to experience the social aspects of high school.

“She needs to be around it because she needs it” to be successful in life, Stephanie said.

Aiden, on the other hand, will be learning online for the rest of his K-12 career, Paula said. She’s noticed he’s more comfortable making friends outside of school and will work to get him some peer interaction through sports.

“If this hadn’t happened, I would never have known that this was a better environment” for him, she said. “I would never have tried it.”

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from The Allstate Foundation, at AllstateFoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2021 edition of Education Week as We Love Virtual Learning: Students, Parents Explain Why

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