Virtual High School: How it will make in-person learning better

I used my school building as a virtual background and let the Zoom AI dye my eyebrows green.

There’s not much that students, parents, and teachers all agree on these days, but one thing is unanimous: Zoom school sucks. Attendance is low, kids don’t turn on their cameras, and meaningful collaboration is hard to orchestrate. Students are disconnected from school, and it’s really hard to make friends. In my blog post this past summer, I focused on strategies to mitigate the challenges of teaching science remotely. But in some ways, remote learning is better than in-person. In certain cases, I get higher engagement than before. My students are learning real-world skills. Their understanding is sometimes deeper now, online.

Like everyone else, I itch to return to school. And when we do go back, there are key elements that I plan to adapt, to ensure the ground I’ve gained this pandemic won’t disappear. Here they are.

1. We have avatars (profile pictures). As a DOE teacher, I can’t require students to turn on their cameras. My co-teacher had a great idea in September to promote a cameras-on norm: she asked the first student who logged on each period to turn on their camera, and then successive students were more willing to turn theirs on. It worked for about a week, but then all the cameras went back off. So I have no visual cues from my students as I teach; I can’t even tell whether my students are physically there (because they are often called away from class to care for siblings, complete household chores, or mediate family conflict). Although I still don’t know what most of my students look like, I do have a window into their personalities: they use their Zoom profile picture to tell us who they are. Profile pictures may show a student’s favorite Anime character, their beloved pet, their favorite actor or singer, or their Zodiac sign. These images end up revealing more personal information than I would learn about them in person, opening a door for me to ask questions and build relationships. Likewise, students ask about my profile picture and why I chose it. When we go back to in-person school, I plan to cultivate a class-wide community through some sort of digital profile picture that everyone can see.

2. Every student answers every question. When I taught in a physical classroom, it was hard to know every student’s thought process throughout the entire class period. I could do call-and-response for the easy questions. I could use plicker-like tools for multiple-choice questions. I could have groups hold up whiteboards for complex problems. But during general discussions, I couldn’t actually see every single student’s thought process simultaneously, while teaching. On Zoom, I can. Many teachers are by now familiar with the “chat waterfall,” wherein every student types an answer in the Zoom chat, and the teacher cues them to send their responses simultaneously. Teachers and students alike appreciate knowing what everyone is thinking. Students who get the answer “wrong” or say “I don’t know” don’t get singled out, but we can see how many people are confused. When I ask questions with many possible answers, students can scroll through and use others’ responses to expand their own thinking. With a quick skim of the chat, I have an incredibly rich set of formative assessment data, which beats anything I could do in person. Then I usually choose one or two of the juiciest answers in chat and ask that student to unmute and elaborate. The ensuing back-and-forth is more targeted and thus more effective than calling a raised hand at random.

3. There is a chat feature. Many students will not speak up during in-person class, no matter what you do. These students may be shy, distrustful of their voice, unwilling to interrupt the teacher, or something else. But as teachers have discovered this past year, they are often quite willing (or even eager!) to type. While teaching on Zoom, I regularly get unprompted questions and comments from most students in the chat. Throughout class, I verbally validate the comments I see, and they often inspire me to take my lessons in a new direction. When we go back to school, I plan to find or design an app that lets students send messages privately to me or publicly to the whole class, throughout class. [4/6/21 update: I think slack is the answer.] Then I will be able to see students’ reactions even when I am on the other side of the physical room. What a powerful tool.

4. We google things during class. Knowing google-able things is unnecessary for a successful life. My students don’t need to memorize academic vocabulary words; rather, they need to apply the concepts in useful ways. If the answer to a student’s question can be googled, then we google it together on a screen-share. I show my students how I choose my search terms and how I decide which answer source to trust. Gone are the days of, “Which one is Newton’s 2nd Law again?” Now, my students google it without shame, so they can focus on why we care about Newton’s 2nd Law and how it manifests in our daily lives. Interestingly, this way of operating is not new for computer science (CS) pedagogy. In my CS classes, “google it” has always been on the list of things to do when one is stuck. I now see that this way of operating needs to extend to all disciplines, and must continue even when we’re back in school in person.

5. Lessons focus on the weekly, not the daily, learning target. I used to be really proud of my daily learning targets. They were rigorous, targeted, and integral to the story of my overarching curriculum. After the pandemic hit, I realized how hard it had been for students to see that arc when each day came with a brand-new objective on the board. They would learn Newton’s 3rd Law on Monday, force diagrams on Tuesday, Newton’s 1st Law on Wednesday, etc. — and they’d see the week as 5 disjointed classes. When we went virtual, my principal coached us to focus on one objective for eachweek. One example might be “How can we use forces to predict motion?” The content is the same, but the learning objective is broader. Force diagrams are now just a thing we do on Tuesday, in service of the week’s mission. This may feel like hair-splitting: as we learn from Understanding by Design, a curriculum map is just a fractalline set of objectives, from the highest-level year-long essential questions down to the specific objective of a 5-minute segment of class. For me, though, it made a difference to transition from thinking about my daily objective as the ultimate level of lesson planning, to doing it at the weekly level. I suspect I’ll keep conceptualizing my lesson plans at the weekly level when we go back to in-person learning.

6. Teachers connect students with people outside the school community. Because we’re all virtual, I’ve been able to invite professionals from all around the world into my classes, and I’ve had students attend remote lectures and webinars that would not have been open to them pre-pandemic. Although in-person conferences and workshops are best, my students are generally unable to travel great distances. Now, they don’t have to! I did have a scientist or two Zoom into my physical classroom pre-pandemic, but we couldn’t quite get the technology to work, so it didn’t go well. Now every classroom is well-outfitted, and so even once we’re back in school, we’ll be able to keep those global connections alive.

Of course there’s no substitute for in-person school. My students learn best when they collaborate using shared lab supplies, try new problem-solving approaches on table-sized whiteboards, and build off of each other’s ideas in semi-structured ad-hoc interactions. Before the pandemic, to be honest, plenty of my students were failing to thrive. And when we went online, many students disappeared. But some students stepped up their game in virtual school. On Zoom, I’ve learned how to build a supportive community, assess all students’ understanding at the same time, and teach the life skills that matter. I can’t wait to get back to my physical classroom. And when I start teaching “real” school again, I will adapt these remote-specific benefits to make my in-person classes even better.

Photo by Subhash Nusetti on Unsplash

I teach physics and computer science in East Harlem, New York. I aim to engage.