Is distance-learning an effective alternative to face-to-face education?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of our lives immeasurably, and has introduced new concepts we probably never gave a first thought to, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and distance learning. Distance learning, or remote learning, assures that everyone is staying home, and is proven to have significantly slowed the spread of the virus, but the question everyone is seeking to answer is different: can this type of learning be as effective as face-to-face learning?

I started off asking both of my interviewees about their experience with online learning. Ms. Thadine Coyne, a Theology teacher at Mount Saint Joseph High School said the online learning we started last spring was very new for her, but thought it had gone really well. She knew the kids she was teaching, and “they had a sense of how to interact with me and what to expect.” 

Theology Teacher Ms. Thadine Coyne

Ms. Coyne found this year’s online, and hybrid, classes to be much more challenging, “It’s impossible to establish what I call a classroom flow of action.”  Eli Gatto, a junior at St. Joe, and one of Ms. Coyne’s students had a much different response. He thought his online classes this year, as well as last year, have gone pretty well so far. “The workload hasn’t been as excruciating; I have been able to have some free time while still doing good work,” said Gatto.

Online learning and face-to-face learning certainly have their benefits and downsides, but could a specific type of learning significantly affect a student’s grades? Ms. Coyne said the greatest difference regarding student’s grades was in testing. “I hate to say it, but the truth is you guys cheat.” Giving objective tests through Google Forms allows the student to use other resources that wouldn’t be normally be available, and Ms. Coyne has no control over what the students are doing/viewing when they are on their iPads at home.

Now thanks to the hybrid model, Ms. Coyne said face-to-face learning so far has been “like a dream come true,” because the smaller cohorts allow her to engage with her students easier, and she finds it more enjoyable. Eli Gatto had a similar response, saying that face-to-face learning makes it easier to engage with your teacher. 

On October 1, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan implored schools to begin getting back to normal, welcoming students on campus as it became feasible. So when Mount St. Joseph made the transition to hybrid learning on October 5, what was the general consensus of the faculty and students to this change? 

The sign of the times: Interviewing Ms. Coyne via Zoom for this story

Ms. Coyne thought opening school on October 5 as a hybrid schedule was a good decision, because families were given the option to stay at home, and overall, she thinks that students and adults are being responsible with social distancing. “Hopefully, everybody will keep doing that so we can continue coming back and forth to school.” Eli also said it was a good decision, because the hybrid schedule has a smaller amount of students, and people are following guidelines and all wearing masks in their classes.

After interviewing Ms. Coyne and Eli Gatto, it became clear that face-to-face learning had more advantages than online learning, whether it be easier to engage with your teachers, or less distractions. Although this is true, there were still some benefits to online learning, such as increased flexibility and not having to drive to school. Both Ms. Coyne and Eli spoke about the benefits of each type of learning and concluded that the hybrid schedule that we have in place was the most preferred. 

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This pandemic has been challenging for everyone and has made us all adapt to a new lifestyle. Every teacher and student has had to adapt to virtual school and some have found the transition to be easy while others have struggled. For my part of the story, I interviewed Mr. Brian Shearer and one of his students, Jeremy Abrams, to get their perspectives on how a teacher and student have handled this unexpected change. 

In the interview with Mr. Shearer, I wanted to get an idea of how he handled the transition and some of the challenges he faced as a young teacher. The primary challenge for him in virtual learning is communicating with his students, and he made it clear that he is using email much more than he had in the past. “The biggest difference has been having to stay on top of students who are missing work. It’s easier for me if a student has incomplete assignments to just speak to them after class. It has been a lot more emails to students and parents as well, just about grade updates, staying on top of missing assignments, and getting work completed.” 

Theology Teacher Mr. Brian Shearer

Mr. Shearer said that while he definitely prefers to be physically in the classroom, being virtual with students has forced him to rethink the way he does certain assignments and the way he approaches teaching. He also said that being online so much has forced him to get comfortable with different platforms. When it came to the technology aspect, he said “My transition was easier than most and part of that I think is just because I’m younger so I’m a little bit more familiar with some of the platforms.”  

While there are a couple of benefits of online learning, Mr. Shearer made it clear that there were many issues that he encountered. He told me that Zoom would sometimes be a problem for him saying “being a discussion-based teacher, having discussions through Zoom is the worst because of connection issues or just timing when someone is going to respond, it just feels unnatural.” He also misses the social aspect that he does not get from virtual learning, adding “What I value the most is the relationships you can form in the classroom that are really hard to form without a physical presence in front of you.” 

I also wanted to get Mr. Shearer’s opinion on whether he thinks students who are completely virtual are getting the same education at home that they would be getting if they were in school. He feels that more students are struggling. “The more you are in-person, generally speaking, the better the education because there is more of an emphasis on focusing and being able to elaborate on deeper questions when you are in the classroom.” He said that some are handling it well, but more students are struggling worse than they should be. 

When I asked him the amount of time he is putting into teaching at home opposed to in person, Mr. Shearer said, “I would say more time in planning, but less time in actually teaching.” He said when it comes to teaching, it takes more time to do attendance, more time to get platforms ready, and more time to grade which does not allow him the full amount of time to teach whereas if everyone was in the classroom, he would have the full class period.  

At times, a student’s perspective of virtual learning can be very different from a teacher’s perspective. Some students enjoy virtual learning because they are able to wake up later and have more free time during the day due to the cohort schedule. Other students miss the in-person interactions and struggle to keep up without physically being able to have a teacher in front of them. I wanted to get a student’s perspective on how he has adapted to online learning. 

I interviewed current sophomore Jeremy Abrams. Jeremy pointed out that the biggest change for him from a traditional classroom setting to virtual learning was the obstacles he had encountered with the technology. “Depending on the WiFi, it was either hard to see what he was presenting or the microphone was lagging. In person, this was not an issue because the presentations were always ready to go.” Jeremy also said that he found himself putting more time into school when he was virtual as opposed to if he was physically in school. “I feel like teachers are giving out twice as many assignments. This has made online more stressful than in person.”  

Sophomore Jeremy Abrams

After my interview with both Mr. Shearer and Jeremy Abrams, I realized that teachers and students both had a lot of the same challenges when it came to virtual school. Whether it is having to stay on top of students who are missing work, or microphones lagging because of the WiFi, both teachers and students have encountered challenges throughout virtual learning. Everyone is still adapting in these unprecedented times and we will surely always remember our time virtually teaching and learning.  

Sean Thompson is a senior member of the Multimedia Journalism class

Kyle Shao is a junior member of the Multimedia Journalism class