When Schools Close – Tips for Successful Online Learning

In March, I – like a lot of teachers – said goodbye to my students, told them I’d see them in a week, wished them a safe Spring Break . . . and never saw them again.

March came as a shock to us all. In the space of basically a week, everything changed, especially education. Parents were suddenly forced to find ways to home school their kids; teachers were forced to come up with creative ways to deliver material; students were forced to figure out online and self-directed learning. No one expected it. Everyone did the best they could.

All summer, teachers were in limbo as schools tried to decide if they were going to remain online, try to return to full-time, face to face classes, or some hybrid of the two. And let’s be real:  schools that ARE returning pell-mell to face-to-face teaching aren’t going to last very long. I fully expect my college to ship everyone home no later than October 1.

Which begs the question:  what do we do?

Well, we move online.

I know everyone was scrambling last year. I was shocked by how unprepared some of my students really were – college students! I can’t imagine what it must be like for those of you with kids in elementary or middle/high school. My college students, I found out, didn’t have computers at home. Didn’t have internet or wifi. They were depending on the college for all of that. Heck, my international students who went home for break didn’t even have their textbooks! They’d left them in their dorms, and suddenly – poof! No coming back, no textbooks.

My college is returning to ‘normal’ – at least, they are for now. I am against this, but I have no say in it. I think we would have been better served to admit that for now, things are changing, and it’s time to change as well. I have to prepare my students for the reality that their face to face classes will go online at some point this fall. So here’s some tips I put together for my students last year, and will be giving them this year. Hopefully they might help someone.

1.) Get Internet access. I live in rural Kansas, where wifi is an issue. I have a wireless router. I’ve had to learn how to get the most of it that I can, and even then, there are days when I simply can’t get a decent signal, but it’s the best I can do. If you can get Internet though your cable provider, that’s an option. AND, most Android phones can be used as wireless routers! Talk to your cell phone provider about your data plan and how much data you can get on your plan. Or check with your school district or college and see if they plan to provide wifi access. For example, my college set up routers so that students could access wifi from their cars, in the parking lot. Not great, but it was the best we could do on the fly.

2.) Get a computer or tablet. You can’t do research on a phone, or write an essay or a three-page paper. And if you live in an area where lockdowns will be a possibility, you can’t rely on libraries or schools being open for computer access. Do not wait. If you don’t already own your own laptop or tablet, go buy one and start learning how to use it. Samsung tablets aren’t that expensive, and they generally come with the Office suite (Word, Excel, etc.). Make sure you get a keyboard for it; it’ll be handy.

3.) Learn time management. I can’t stress this one enough. I’ve taught online for eight or nine years now. I KNOW students procrastinate! I know you all wait until the last possible moment to do your homework. STOP IT. NOW! You don’t have that luxury anymore. I can see when my students log in; I can see when they start assignments. Any good learning management system (LMS) like Blackboard lets teachers see everything their students are doing. Learn time management. If you know you have a paper due in two weeks, figure out how to break down the work into small, manageable pieces instead of waiting until two hours before it’s due, then putting together some slap-dash piece of craptastic, plagiarized garbage your poor teacher will have to give you an F for. Purdue University has some great tips here:  https://www.purdueglobal.edu/blog/student-life/time-management-busy-college-students/

4.) Don’t wait until the last minute to do assignments! I’m separating this one from time management because again, I see it all the time. Procrastination can be good in some cases, but your school work isn’t one of them. First of all, you may underestimate how much time you’ll need for an assignment. If you do that, you may fail the test or assignment, and your teacher probably won’t give you an extension. (And before you think about excuses – don’t bother. We’ve heard them all.) Also, online LMS platforms like Blackboard are notorious for small glitches like not saving quiz scores, kicking students out of tests, closing things early, etc. If you run into these issues early in the week, WAY before the assignments are due, you can talk to your instructor and get the problems fixed. If you wait until the last minute and run into those issues, we are far less likely to believe you. Seriously.

5.) Set up a place to work. This is impossible for some of us – I have a tiny house where my desk is in my bedroom. Zero separation of work/sleep space. Zero separation from the kitties, too! But if you can, find a quiet location for your desk and books; a place where you can work. If your bedroom is quiet and you like the quiet, that’s great. If you prefer to be nearer the hub of activity, perhaps the kitchen table is more ideal. We all have our own way of working, and from day to day, or even from assignment to assignment, that might change. I write best in coffee shops, but for actual homework,  I need a quiet place to focus. If there is no place like that for you, try earbuds and your phone – fire up some music, and focus on your work for an hour or two. Outside space – the backyard, a park – can also be great. It gets you outside, it changes your mood and perspective. Being near water can be energizing.

6.) Set up a time to work. Believe it or not, we thrive on schedules. And we all have different rhythms to our lives. I HATE getting up early, but I used to be great at staying up late and working into the wee hours – it was my jam when I was in school. Some people love to get up early and get work out of the way. Figure out the best schedule for you. Obviously, if you’re in an online synchronous environment (where you’re online with your teacher and classmates simultaneously), this won’t work, but if you’re in an asynchronous learning environment, it will be great.

7.) Ask for help. If you don’t understand an assignment, ask for clarification. If you can’t access an assignment, let your teacher know ASAP. If you have a question about a reading, or a math problem, ASK. The thing is, we’re sitting on the other side of that computer screen, unaware if you’re having an issue or if you’re just not completing assignments. Truthfully, at the college level, instructors accept that some students will just stop attending – they will stop logging in, stop doing assignments, stop participating. We don’t know why. We reach out, we get nothing. We file student concern reports; advisors get nothing back. We have zero clue what has happened. You have to let us know if there’s a problem with your internet, your textbook access, whatever it is. If you don’t, we can’t know.

8.) Expect that every teacher will do things differently. That’s just how it is. Every single one of your teachers will have different skill levels. Access to different levels of technology. They’ll be comfortable with differing levels of interaction and assignments. Especially at the college level, don’t expect all of your classes to go the same way. Some of your teachers will go with synchronous online learning; others will post video lectures. Some won’t be able to do either one, but instead will require more of you from the textbook or online sources. Be flexible. Go with it. Know what the expectations are in each of your classes.

9.) PAY ATTENTION IN YOUR SYNCHRONOUS ONLINE CLASSES, DARN IT. Those Zoom sessions are for YOU. Not your teacher. YOU. Just as every teacher has a different classroom style, so every teacher will teach differently on Zoom. This is especially true at the college level. If your teacher primarily lectures in class, don’t expect different on Zoom. If you are put in a virtual room to discuss things, discuss them. Participate. Pay attention. Accept that this is just the way it’s going to be for now. (And if they post video lectures, by all means, watch them. This is what I had to do last year. They take a lot of work, believe me. Make it count!)

On that note, seriously, ACCEPT THAT THIS IS THE WAY IT’S GOING TO BE FOR NOW. Don’t whine about how you want your college or high school experience. Make the most of what you’ve got right now. Please. No amount of whining, crying, complaining, or wishing is going to make this pandemic go away any faster. It just won’t. Do NOT take a gap year, hoping things will be ‘normal’ next year, because they probably won’t. I don’t think things will be normal for at least two years, maybe three. Do you really want to push your education off that long, just to have that ‘college experience?’ Or do you want to take online classes now, get your core classes out of the way, and be able to hit the ground running on your major when things get back to ‘normal?’ What if things are never normal again? How long do you want to wait?

All of that said – I KNOW that these tips can’t help everyone. This is going to be a difficult year for us all. Those of you with some online learning experience will handle it better than those of you without. And I know there are students who truly need to be in the classroom; I know there are students who cannot afford the tools they need to move online. I am furious with my own college for not addressing this very issue, in fact. I know that schools are finding it hard to come up with the funds to ensure wifi access for students, let alone tablets or laptops for those without them. And I know that there are students who are going to be left behind, and that infuriates me. It’s not their fault. They deserve a proper education.

This year is really going to show us how bad the ‘digital divide’ in America is. I suspect it’s going to be a lot worse than we ever thought it was. In the past, I could always send students to the computer lab or their local library to work on things. I can’t do that anymore; I can’t take it for granted that they’ll be open! We teachers are also having to shift how we think and operate, how we run our classes, what we can expect from our students. It won’t be seamless, and it won’t be easy. It will be like learning how to drive a stick shift – full of jumps and starts and leaps forward and grinding gears and probably a stall or two while we figure out how to put the car in first and get it started again.

But for now, we have to accept that this is the way it’s going to be. The question is, how are we going to handle it?

Some tips on being a successful online student from the University of Illinois:  https://www.uis.edu/ion/resources/tutorials/pedagogy/successful-online-student/

For more about the digital divide among students and the pandemic, see https://www.wired.com/story/schools-digital-divide-remote-learning/

From Edutopia, some resources for parents and educators on technology and the digital divide:  https://www.edutopia.org/digital-divide-technology-access-resources