Remote Learning: Pros and Cons in Ann Arbor Public Schools

What parts of remote learning are being done well and what can be improved until Ann Arbor Public Schools’ reasonable return, currently scheduled for March.

Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) recently announced that they plan to begin a reasonable return to in-person learning in March. The plan begins with bringing back students with challenges, younger students, and others in need of more in-person assistance. In the meantime, AAPS will be continuing with remote/digital learning. 

We received feedback from students, parents, administrators, and staff, and looked into other data and information from studies in relation to digital learning. This will help navigate where some improvements can occur while we wait for the return of in-person learning.

What is Working with Remote Learning

1. Tolerance for the way students represent themselves and their backgrounds during zoom sessions. Some students do not feel comfortable being on video during an entire class session for a variety of reasons. Some don’t feel like they have a nice background image of their home, so they don’t want their setting to be seen by others. Or they don’t want to feel others are judging them on their gender, clothes, or general visual depiction and others’ interpretations. They wish to be accepted by the content of their character and ideas, which they feel is focused upon more in a chat or text. Luckily, many teachers have been sensitive to students’ needs. Students are oftentimes able to communicate via chat or message to teachers after class when they feel more comfortable. Teachers have done a great job allowing for individual preferences and privacy overall during Zoom sessions.

2. Non-lecture time. Many teachers have decided to not use the entire class time to lecture or pontificate. Instead, they plan for other activities. Additionally, teachers give class assignments and directions in an asynchronous format. Some even give class time for students to work on assignments with other students in collaborative manners. Many teachers plan student break out sessions during a Zoom call. This allows for more student group work and collaboration.

3. Flexibility with due dates. Many teachers are accepting late assignments with little or no penalty. These teachers are understanding of how draining it may be for students to be captive on Zoom sessions for most of the day, then have to continue their work at night. This is a bit for a carryover from last March when the requirement was for students to complete only a certain number of assignments of their choice as long as it was turned in by the end of the marking period.

4. Understanding for technical difficulties. There has been a learning curve with online learning. Technical difficulties continue to be present with Zoom connections and Schoology connections. Many students have had challenges logging on to certain sessions, uploading assignments, or receiving user errors for various tasks. Teachers have been extremely understanding that all of this has been very new to students and allowing them a generous learning curve. 

5. Communication and Working Hard. Generally, AAPS teachers and staff have been responsive to parents who email them with inquiries on the status of their child or child’s progress, technical difficulties, or concerns about grades. Teachers, administrators, and staff have all been working hard to help students succeed given very difficult circumstances. Many teachers report that it is actually more difficult to plan for a Zoom session than an in-class session. There has also been in increase in emails and communication with parents and teachers regarding how to deal with both Schoology and Powerschool. Everyone should get recognition for their valiant efforts during these extremely difficult times: teachers, students, parents, and all others.

Where We Can Improve

1. Isolation. Many students feel as though they have to be glued in front of a screen all day with little real-life interaction. Teachers might encourage socially distanced meetings with friends or family through such activities as distanced outdoor winter walks. They might even consider ways to integrate outdoor activities into certain assignments. Projects such as identification and photography of various kinds of evergreens in a science class or creating math/physics problems related to a snowball fight or sledding.

2. Anxiety. According to the Digital Future Initiative, in 1985, 18 percent of teens said they suffered from overwhelming anxiety. By 2016, that number has surged to 41 percent. Today, due to COVID, children and teens are experiencing even more anxiety than the 2016 figures. The COVID pandemic is a traumatic event and most children and teens, along with everyone else, are feeling the affects. Getting kids to partake in more therapeutic projects away from technology may help. Thinking about assignments where students are engaging in hands-on activities away from computers. These activities would include things such as with poster boards, art creations, or meeting with peers in socially distanced ways outdoors may alleviate anxiety and stress.

3. Too Much Screen Time. Some pediatricians recommend that younger children ages 2 to 5 only have one hour of screen time per day. They also recommend kids and teens ages 8 to 18 are to have only two hours per day. So remote/virtual learning pushes those hours up to an average of more than seven hours a day looking at screens. However, obviously due to COVID, people have had to work from home and students have been forced to partake in online learning. Additionally, students can only see friends occasionally through their digital devices. Again, more creativity can be focused on ways to unplug and have downtime from digital devices.

4. Falling Behind. It has been reported that due to remote learning, students are falling behind in key subject areas like reading and mathematics. Other students report they have gone from being A and B students to Ds and Fs. Students are not only facing challenges socially and emotionally, but academically as well. Schools need to start planning now how they are going to get these students to catch up. All of these factors are hurting low-income, minority, English-learners, children with disabilities, and other groups even more. According to researchers at Stanford University, the average student has lost 1/3 to a full year’s worth of learning in reading. Additionally, they’ve lost approximately three-quarters a year or more in mathematics since schools have closed in March. More options for in-person summer school catch-up and/or after school programs once in-person school restarts need to be in the works now.

Additionally, many students complain that the online sessions are not very engaging. It has been suggested that more assignments be done where students have to work together, as a team or collaboratively. It has also been suggested that teachers try to use some of the games that students naturally gravitate to, such as Minecraft or other popular digital games, and utilize popular platforms such as TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter in projects. 

5. Start In-Person Learning. The AAPS Superintendent recently announced that in-person learning will be available as soon as March. Everyone should make it a priority for teachers and school staff to get vaccinations as soon as possible. This way, they will feel safer in the classroom. This way, students can make a reasonable return to enjoy at least a couple of months of in-person learning this school year.

Full disclosure: Iadipaolo is a current State of Michigan certificated teacher and began formally teaching in 1990. She has taught as a traditional in-person teacher, curriculum developer, and online teacher. She earned her Bachelor’s from the University of Michigan. There, she graduated with honors and studied mathematics, education, and earned three teaching certificates. Iadipaolo has also earned two Master’s degrees in Mathematics Teaching and Learning and within the Communications field. She also recently completed an Education Specialist degree and is working on her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction.

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