When in-person schools were closed and teaching and learning became a virtual activity for most students and teachers, a scramble ensued to design, create, and adapt essential educational activities to a virtual world. Some of the modifications worked well; others did not. Some shifts required time, experimentation, and adjustments to find workable solutions. Yet, over time many activities became comfortable and common place. In some cases, virtual activities and applications equaled or exceeded the benefits of their in-person counterparts.
As plans are developed for the coming year, we need to ask whether some of the solutions and modifications crafted for teaching and learning during the pandemic should continue into a post-pandemic reality. Of course, face-to-face interactions can be more effective for some activities. Yet, assuming that all or most of the approaches and solutions developed during the pandemic should be abandoned risks squandering what was learned that might continue to serve teaching and learning well. Let’s explore six activities that were commonly conducted virtually during the pandemic that deserve to continue in the future.
Many schools transitioned to virtual parent conferences to reduce the danger of viral spread. However, they discovered that more parents, including parents who otherwise might not have attended, agreed to participate. Busy parents appreciated the flexibility to connect without having to travel. Some parents also reported feeling more comfortable and less stressed in a virtual setting. Teachers were able to be more efficient in scheduling and conducting conferences. If a parent did not show up, teachers were better able to make use of the time for other tasks. Virtual conferences certainly can remain an option for parents. In fact, schools can expect disappointment and even resistance from some parents if conferences revert to being exclusively in-person.
The pressure to move quickly and the need to maintain safety protocols meant that many schools transitioned to virtual professional development activities. Since the needs of staff members often varied, virtual delivery offered a vehicle to customize content and support. Further, the pressures and chaos of the transition demanded flexibility for teachers to engage in professional learning when they were available rather than waiting for formally scheduled and structured sessions. Professional learning opportunities responded to real time needs. The convenience and opportunity to focus learning in response to teacher needs argues for continuing professional development in a virtual context for at least a portion of the learning options available to teachers.
With teachers isolating, many school leaders had no choice but to conduct virtual staff meetings. A virtual format offered flexibility to engage staff members despite not being face-to-face. Many staff found the format to be convenient, especially if they were also attending to the learning of their own children or caring for family members. Further, many school leaders made these meeting efficient by providing information in advance and focusing meeting time on crucial issues, needed input, and shared problem solving. A mix of in-person and virtual staff meetings will likely be the choice of many principals and teachers to tap the best of both formats.
Of course, virtual professional team planning meetings were a staple for many grade-level and subject area teams. The virtual format allowed teams to choose the best times to meet, freeing them from the confines of before and after school or formal preparation times. Team members often decided when to meet in response to team member’s schedules, availability, and preferences. Joint lesson planning, shared resources, and problem solving generated renewed value as everyone was struggling to respond to a new set of challenges. Virtual team meetings and planning will continue to be an attractive option for many teacher teams, in addition to in-person sessions.
One of the brighter spots of the pandemic was the rich variety of resources and experiences teachers arranged for their students, including virtual field trips, guest speakers, and other remote resources. Museums, historical sites, and art galleries and other rich sources and supports for learning became much more available and easier to access virtually. Guest speakers found virtual visits to be less time consuming compared to in-person appearances. Distance and many logistical challenges were removed as barriers. Virtual field trips meant access without the expense, inconvenience, and disruption of students having to travel. Of course, there will remain an important role for in-person experiences, but virtual options can open an even wider range of learning experiences.
At first, many teachers and students struggled with strategies to engage students with each other in a virtual environment. However, growing familiarity with technology and more flexible tools led teachers to engage students effectively in virtual student team activities. Breakout rooms, online collaboration tools, and other resources supported shared student dialogue and collaboration. Meanwhile, technology tools allowed teachers to monitor team discussions and activities in real time without having to interrupt discussions. Coaching and redirection could be offered without disturbing other groups of students. Further, the option of recording team interactions allowed for review, analysis, and reflective learning for students and teachers. While in-person student team activities may remain the dominate venue, the availability and familiarity of technology tools to support collaboration will continue to make virtual team activities a worthy option.
We may want to put the past year behind us. However, we need to preserve and leverage what we have learned from virtual teaching and learning to support our work and provide flexibility and efficiency in our professional lives.