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Teachers, students, parents all learning while classes move online

While many students might bristle at the idea of online learning, other kids thrive in an online environment.
Nixon Samchuk's kitchen table has become his new classroom. Kids across the province kicked off their online learning because COVID-19 restrictions are keeping them out of the classroom.

Many of Isaac Finlayson’s Grade 11 classmates don’t love online learning, but Finlayson said he doesn’t mind taking his courses online.

The St. Albert teen is taking Social 20, Chemistry 20 and English 20 and said so far his classes have been good, but he does his work during “weird hours.”

The teen said so far his classes have been good but he does his work during “weird hours.”

“I mainly do my work around 11 to midnight,” the night owl said.

Finlayson said for the learning and education aspect, he enjoys online learning.

“For the social aspect, it sucks,” he added.

While many students might bristle at the idea of online learning, other kids thrive in an online environment.

Jennifer Branch-Mueller, an education professor at the University of Alberta who teaches online courses, said online learning can allow for flexibility in learning, including when students decide to do their work.

“It’s the flexibility – it’s asynchronous,” Branch-Mueller said.

“For some high school kids, they'd rather sleep in 'til noon and their brains are better later on in the day. So this is probably working quite well for some students.”

For students who are a bit too shy to participate in class or need a few moments to think before they answer a question, online learning is great, Branch-Mueller said.

“If you're in a big class and you don't shout out the answer right away, the teacher's just carrying on with the lesson, whereas when you're online and you're expected to engage, you wait for everybody to engage,” Branch-Mueller said.

“It does allow some kids time to participate and the space to participate.”

One of the things Finlayson said he likes about online learning is the ability to work at his own pace. The teen said he spends about two to three hours on his schoolwork a day, which is less than he has to put in when he is learning in the classroom.

“Normally, the teachers have to take it slow for some students, so I can sprint through everything and get it all done really quick,” Finlayson said.

Finlayson said his parents haven’t had to intervene to force him to do his work and so far he has got everything done before it is due, although he said some of his friends aren’t enjoying the online learning as much.

“One of my good friends said he signed up to go to school, not to do homeschooling, so he doesn't want to do anything at home,” Finlayson said.

Branch-Mueller said being self-motivated and being good at reading and writing are big assets for learning in an online setting.

“If they're strong readers and they're strong writers, they may love online learning,” Branch-Mueller said.

But while there are some great benefits to online learning, it will never replace traditional learning.

Jessica Samchuk, whose kids are in grades six and three, said her kids wake up excited to open up their Chromebooks and connect with their teachers and classmates.

“They're engaged and they're excited,”  Samchuk said.

Her son Nixon, who is in Grade 6, said he really misses his teacher Mr. Hayworth and likes seeing him every day during their online classes.

While students this year started out in the classroom and had a connection to each other before they went online, Branch-Mueller said it can be hard to create that sense of community through online-only learning.

And while flexibility for learning is good for some students, it is harder to build a community when students can’t come together with their teacher.

“Building (an) online community is hard,” Branch-Mueller said.

“Kids in school, that school is a huge part of their community – it's their social world.”

Kids also learn very important social skills while they are in school learning about subjects laid out in the curriculum.

“It shapes who we are as people, so I think we will all lose out if we are not back in school,” Branch-Mueller.

The academic and teacher said a lot of the skills kids learn involve problem solving together and asking questions when they need help.

Nothing replaces coming together and reading a book together with young kids in elementary school, Branch-Mueller added. When she used to teach Grade 1 students, she remembers reading them a book and having the kids play with her shoelaces and touching her leg.

"When you sit with a kid on your lap, and ... you read a book with a group of kids, and they all have that shared experience together in one time in one moment, that's really powerful. That's the good stuff of teaching.”

Kevin Hubick, math and computer science teacher at Sturgeon Composite High School who used to head up a unique club that sought to build an autonomous trash-collecting robot, said the switch to online learning has posed challenges.

“It’s been a huge change” teaching in the midst of a pandemic, Hubick said.

“Teaching is all about having a relationship with a young person sitting there in front of you,” and now that kid’s not there.

Now Hubick said he isn’t quite sure if what he is saying is sinking in with his students.

“I’d much rather be in front of a class of 30 students,” Hubick said, adding he can tell from body language, like nodding, if the student are understanding the lessons.

“We just don’t have any feedback and that’s part of the challenge.”

Cam Makovichuk, a St. Albert Public Schools district co-ordinator of numeracy/education technology, said teachers have really had to switch their teaching methods quickly to move to online learning.

“We’re not just doing online learning. We're doing emergency online learning. It's not like we've been able to create this instruction manual beforehand and have time to adequately prepare ourselves and our students for how we're going to make these connections and make sure that they're set up,” Makovichuk said.

Branch-Mueller, who teaches courses online, said online courses are usually designed from the beginning to be taught virtually, while in-person classes are designed to be taught face-to-face. This year, teachers are having to turn on a dime.

“You build your whole course in an online way. So what's happened with teachers right now is they (planned) their school year thinking about meeting kids every day.”

One thing that has to be considered when setting up online classes is just how much time students will spend learning.

Kindergarten to Grade 6 students will be doing five hours a week of learning, which works out to just an hour per day. Junior high students in grades 7 to 9 will be expected to do 10 hours per week of learning, while high school students from grades 10 to 12 have three hours per course per week.

The province outlined expectations for each grade, which Makovichuk said is a decrease from the amount of learning that would have been done in a traditional classroom setting.

“That workload recognizes the demands of not only learning the curricular aspects of literacy and numeracy and the core subjects, but it also recognizes that students and teachers and parents are learning how to use the technology in order to connect and teach and learn. Lessons and assignments have been decreased at this time to accommodate that,” Makovichuk said.

The online expert said with reduced teaching hours, the schools have to prioritize what is most important for kids to learn. Right now, the focus is on getting kids through their grade with the expected numeracy and literacy skills.

Hubick said teachers have switched to teaching smaller chunks of material at a time to have more time for online coaching and review. Teachers also have to boil down to the basics, as there just isn’t enough time to cover everything.

Hubick typically teaches through Google Meet, films himself and gives a talk and then asks if students have any questions, and he generally gets quite a few emails from students afterwards.

Makovichuk said teachers are working together while facing this new challenge to help find new ways of doing things.

“Teachers have been working together, for example, like a kindergarten and Grade 1 team, and a Grade 2 and 3 team, and so forth. They’ve been coming together virtually across the district,” Makovichuk said.

But while switching to online learning halfway through the year isn’t ideal, Makovichuk said some good may come from this experience.

Embedding technology into all subject areas and looking at digital portfolios are both benefits from moving courses online.

“Everybody's going to feel more comfortable with technology. It pushes us out of our comfort zone,” Branch-Mueller said.

For teachers, this experience has been a massive expansion in their professional development in a short period of time.

“Teachers, whether or not they're comfortable with technology, have been learning how to use apps and they're being pulled in a variety of directions. Teachers are not only prioritizing connections with students and then trying to infuse teaching and learning in there, but they're also being the tech support for their students and their students' families,” Makovichuk explained.

Teachers are saying the last few weeks of online learning are making them feel like first-year teachers all over again, because of how much learning they have to do.

“Teachers are superstars,” Makovichuk said.

“Teachers who are not familiar with technology, they're on an incredible learning curve as they're doing their best to learn about this technology and also do all the other higher-priority things like connecting, teaching and learning."

And the hard work teachers are doing is not going unrecognized.

Lannie Flamond is a parent to a Kindergarten student (age five) and a Grade 2 student (age eight) who attend Sir Alexander Mackenzie School and said the amount of support teachers are giving her family is “mind blowing.”

The mom said she is extremely impressed that the teachers have transitioned so smoothly to online learning in just a few short weeks.

“They're doing an amazing, outstanding job – I can't even thank them enough,” Flamond said.

The mom said when this pandemic started, she was struggling with her mental health and the teachers and school supported her through the difficult transition to online learning.

Flamond, a single mom, is working from home and is trying to move. Initially, the thought of having to support her kids through online learning was “alarming.”

She said the teachers are walking them through how to set everything up, step by step, making the transition much easier for parents.

“For them to have to focus on their own families and take care of their own kids, but they're actually taking care of all of their students, kids and their parents as well,” Flamond said. “They're going above and beyond, like completely above and beyond. They’re available to us at all times."

When the mom has questions or concerns about school, they respond quickly and remind Flamond to be kind to herself, not to push too hard, that classes aren’t meant to be stressful and it’s okay to get work done a little bit late.

“The fact that they're really focusing on a lot on our wellbeing and how we're doing as a family is reassuring."

The school lent the family two Chromebooks for the kids to use because Flamond is working from home on her computer.

Despite the successes with online learning, there are still many kinks and challenges in the online learning environment that still need to be ironed out.

At home, kids may face additional challenges in focusing. Hubick said students may have to care for siblings at home, may have a bad Internet connection or may only have one computer for multiple kids to learn on.

The local school districts are trying to remedy the technology issues by lending out Chromebooks to kids at home with limited access to technological devices, so they aren’t restricted to having one computer per family.

Another challenge is testing, which many teachers are still trying to figure out.

“Do you still have multiple choice quizzes now?” Hubick asked.

Instead, Hubick is focusing on class engagement and explanation. The teacher is evaluating students on their ability to explain to him why and how things work.

While some students could cheat and take shortcuts, Hubick said most seem to realize they’ll get hammered next year if they take shortcuts.

Another challenge is supporting kids who may have needed a little extra help in the classroom.

“I'm certainly concerned about our special needs kids that have other needs and supports, and that must make it really difficult for families,” Branch-Mueller said.

When kids go to school, they have a whole team of support staff available to help them. Occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech language pathologists all come together to provide support for kids, along with educational assistants.

But now at home, parents are left to pick up the slack from an entire team of professionals.

Makovichuk said teachers are coming up with creative ways to support kids. One student in the district is hard of hearing and can’t listen to any online videos the teachers make, so to help make sure the student can learn and continue to be part of the online classroom community, an educational assistant signs the lessons and then overlays the video on top of the teachers lesson.

Teachers are also exploring new apps that may support language and vocabulary development for kids who may be learning English as a second language.

Families who have multiple kids or parents who are working may also struggle to meet the learning demands for their kids.

Although the system set up right now isn’t ideal, Branch-Mueller said some positives could come out of teaching during the pandemic.

"Yes, there will be things that kids will miss out on but there will be other things about being home and having time with parents that may be great, like baking together, helping with meals, helping do laundry, all those kinds of things,” Branch-Mueller said.

The academic said the pandemic will also force people to be more kind and have more patience.

“I also think everybody just needs to be kind to each other, to their teachers, to themselves and to their kids.”

And teaching and learning could evolve in a good way after classrooms have been forced online for a few months.

“Necessity is the mother of invention, right? All of these technologies have been here and now teachers are going to play around with them –, which is really what we all do when we're learning new technologies, is play.”

– with files from Kevin Ma

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Newspapers based in St. Albert, Alta.
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