As an elementary special education teacher, I teach in a hybrid class of some students learning synchronously online and some learning in-class. It’s a juggle of competing agendas as teaching online and in-class are very different due to different ecologies of learning. Ecology is defined as “the study of the relationships between living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment; it seeks to understand the vital connections between plants and animals and the world around them.”
In-class ecology of learning
In-class learning happens in a physical environment of personal connections. In-class students learn by watching and listening to teachers while they also complete their work. Teachers can address specific students’ needs by reading body language and answering students’ questions.
Classroom learning is personal in nature.
In-class ecology is based on interactions between participants that occur face-to-face with the opportunity to directly deal with students based on need. Needs are determined by teachers being able to assess students’ needs by their knowledge of student learning profiles and emotions identified via body language. Classrooms also provide students with opportunities to interact with other students and move while learning.
Classroom learning is fostered by relationships and the interconnections between students, parents, and teachers.
Online ecology of learning
Online learning happens in a virtual environment of auditory connections. When students learning online, they learn mostly by listening through a screen via an online platform. Teachers explain concepts through images and speaking with little or no eye contact with students. As students often have their cameras off (i.e., their choice to protect their privacy at home), teachers cannot assess students’ level of engagement nor can they assess students’ understanding of lessons. Further, since students learn via camera, they miss the opportunity to engage in learning by manipulating objects such as with math manipulatives or creating experiments in science.
Online learning is void of the personal nature found in classroom learning.
Through a camera, teachers cannot develop the fulsome relationships key to the evaluation of students’ understanding and need for support. In addition, teachers are highly limited in the understanding of students’ learning profiles or emotional needs.
The assessment of work is also a challenge as teachers cannot directly witness products or collect observations in assessing success criteria. Conducting assessments via conversations is challenging as other students are literally in the same space as the student being assessed.
Online learning falls short in the building of relationships and interconnections between students, parents, and teachers. As the act of learning is fueled by personal interactions and relationships, without them learning is constrained. Online learning, especially for students with special education needs, is not an effective venue to learn. Further, online learning disproportionally impacts students who come from lower social economic backgrounds where the additional resources of time and money may not be available to support learning from home.
Online and In-Class Learning have different ecologies
Overall, it’s taken me many months to delineate what works synchronously online and in-class via the hybrid model. As learning about how to teach is based on experience, I’ve had some lessons that were not to be repeated and through this process I know what works with my current class of students.
In-class and online teaching “Flip-o-Rama”
Tuesday, February 16th, 2021 was the day my in-class students were to return to school. My online students would remain online but follow along in class via a camera (which was finally provided to me by my board of education after a year of teaching online learning.) But Mother Nature decided not to have us return to school via a big dump of snow – a snow day was announced via Twitter.
My lesson plans for this day were based on teaching in-class at school. We were to get our classroom organized, go over new Covid protocols, discuss plans for our science projects, and learn about anti-racism. I did not plan for another day of teaching online.
I was informed via Twitter by this message “On Feb. 16, 2021, all buses are cancelled & school buildings are closed to students due to inclement weather conditions. Learning will continue at home through remote, synchronous instruction, where possible.”
I understand the need for students to continue their learning and I have been working over 6 days a week to make this happen. I have been stepping up to “learning through remote synchronous instruction, where possible” by making it possible every day since September 2020. As a teacher, during the Covid-19 pandemic, I have worked hard to meet every additional expectation presented to me by my board of education. I have made “where possible”, possible.
Just Pivot In-class to Online
The challenge I face is that I cannot “just flip a switch” (i.e. or pivot) to go from planning for in-class learning to synchronous, online learning. It is not an easy, “flip of a switch”, transition. The reality is that I need to plan more for online learning by making sure students have the materials they need to participate in lessons.
My greatest concern is that, in the future, once the pandemic passes, Snow Days (i.e., inclement weather days) will automatically become online learning days. This will result in teachers having to flip from in class learning to online learning within hours of inclement weather announcements. Parents will have to arrange their day to accommodate their child’s online school by monitoring their work and supporting learning activities where possible. It’s a big ask for teachers and parents.
Setting a precedent for online learning during inclement weather days is a slippery slope.
I can see boards and ministries of education using inclement weather online learning to move more students’ learning, online.
Deborah Weston, PhD