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How to Conquer Virtual Learning during the Coronavirus

With most high schools and colleges commencing the year with some version of online learning, millions of students are faced with a complex learning format, most teachers don’t even know how to properly implement. On the surface, online classes appear to be easier, and if implemented improperly, may be easier, but also less robust. Nevertheless, most students cozying up to their Cheerios, thinking they are happy to be home, are about to be smacked with the reality that online learning is tough, really tough. But there’s good news, you can make it easier with some planning and discipline.

In order to talk about strategies to conquer online learning, we have to first talk about why it’s harder and/or why being in-person is usually easier.

  • We learn from each other. In fact, Lev Vygotsky, the Russian version of John Dewey, based his entire seminal learning theory around that fact. Whether we learn in formal small group discussions or activities or we learn from the questions people ask in class, much of our knowledge in school comes from the intentional environment.
  • We rely on teachers, teaching us. American schools are traditionally centered on a teacher-facilitated lecture paradigm. You show up, someone tells you what you need to know, you do some follow up reading, and you’ve learned something. If you aren’t paying attention, the instructor either calls you out or gives you dirty looks. They hold you accountable.
  • School is more than learning. Like all things in the world, school has its roses and thorns. We are in part motivated to learn by the opportunities outside of learning. Whether it’s socializing with friends, intramural sports, or anime club, these activities provide balance in our lives to help regulate and endure the less motivating activities of classes.
  • Humans crave predictability. There’s nothing more American than the 40-hour work week with rigid start and end times and predetermined breaks in between. Whether we crave an unyielding itinerary in our lives or have been brainwashed to need it, the fact is that being on your own time can be overwhelming.
  • School has less distractions, believe it or not. It’s hard to imagine being in a classroom with 20+ other students and not being distracted by the smacking of gum from the girl next to you, or the cologne from the guy behind you, or a casual smile from your interest across from you. But for the most part, the focus in a classroom is on learning, and it’s not quite as easy to take a break to play some video games or grab a can of Coke and some cheesy puffs.

Some shocking news, if you haven’t figured it out, we go to school to learn because it’s easier and more effective than trying to do it from home. Whether it was the correspondence classes of the 60’s, the conference call classes of the 90’s, or the online education of this century, schools and colleges are still in business because it’s a better pedagogical format for most students. So, during this hopefully limited timeframe of a global pandemic, what can you do to make your life easier during virtual learning?

  • Learn Together. Find a group of people to take the class with. Taking a class with a group will not only make the class easier, but it will also make it more enjoyable. Whether you already know some people in the class, need to reach out to the class list, or ask the instructor, find a group who would be willing to work together. Meet weekly in a field with masks on and 6 feet apart or have a twice weekly Zoom conference, but by all means, don’t go it alone. A few companions on this ride will certainly help.
  • Teachers teach, students learn. We’ve become overly dependent on needing teachers to learn. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but the responsibility for learning should be on students, from a young age. As you are learning or have been slapped with this reality already, the responsibility to learn the material is now more of your responsibility than ever before. You can mute, pause, fast forward, slow-mo, or Facebook through any lecture now and the lecture is only one small part of mastering the class. Utilize the additional resources offered in the class and if they don’t exist or are not sufficient, relentlessly find the resources to learn the material online, from your peers, or other smart people quarantined around you. The responsibility for learning is all yours now.
  • Plan some fun. Do not overestimate the dark power of boredom. Finding the right work/life balance will be essential for online learning. Now, to be clear, this is not about procrastination. In fact, procrastination is often a product of boredom. It’s about planning fulfilling activities to offset the monotony of learning and improve your stamina to endure through it productively. Plan daily activities that you enjoy to keep the fun in your life and commit yourself to school when it’s learning time. We all need something to look forward to.
  • Make a schedule. On the surface, I’m sure you are looking at the flexibility of online learning with eagerness. But in reality, the lack of schedule can cause more stress and chaos in your life than you would expect. It’s easy to be distracted by other priorities that pop up regularly or conversely, to become overwhelmed by an ominous, omnipresent learning environment. Thus, create a daily schedule that includes what courses you will be focusing on, what fun activities you will do, when you will take breaks, and when you will do “homework” and stick to it. Trying to do all of these things at once will be overwhelming and exhausting.
  • Limit your distractions. True, I may have checked Facebook and my email a few times while writing this article, but also true, I’m not in school. If I were in school like you and actually needed to focus, I’d be in trouble. Whether it’s Facebook, a Netflix series, snack breaks, video games, your iPhone, or staring at traffic, being home and learning comes with significantly more distractions than school. Make some rules for yourself, such as, no social media until you’ve done an hour of work or an hour of video games for every four hours of work. You know yourself the best, so set the rules and rewards/punishments to keep you focused. Choose a workspace that limits distractions and just pretend like your teacher is watching.

To be honest, online learning will likely become more engrained in our lives moving forward, even when this whole global pandemic thing is over. It’ll take years for students and teachers to adjust to this relatively new format, but with some intentional planning and foresight, we can be proactive in ensuring our educational survival and success. It’s just all on your shoulders now to do it, finally the freedom you’ve been yearning for.

Dr. Perry LaRoque is author of Taking Flight: College for Students with Disabilities, Diverse Learners and their Families and Founder/President of Mansfield Hall. He earned his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in Special Education and served as a professor both in-person and online for seven years. 

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