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Online learning: crisis and opportunity

New York Daily News logo New York Daily News 4/3/2020 Emily Feistritzer

Like many institutions caught off guard by the coronavirus pandemic, our nation’s schools have found themselves alarmingly unprepared for this crisis. With millions of schoolchildren sent home for what could be several months, their teachers have been trying to figure out in real-time how to educate, engage and grade their students remotely.

When remote learning kicked off in New York City last week, parents logged on to find a hodgepodge of improvised solutions. Some teachers posted videos of themselves reading books to a camera. Others posted worksheets for children to complete independently. Parents of elementary school children have complained that they have been forced to spend hours each day explaining these online lessons to their children.

“I’ve honestly never felt so micromanaged in my life,” a mother of a first-grader told the Daily News.

Many high school parents are losing the battle to keep their kids focused on their remote lessons – most of which are not clear on what is to be learned, much less graded.

This is not the fault of our teachers. Inexperienced and untrained in online instruction, many of the city’s public school teachers have simply attempted to replicate the in-classroom experience in a virtual setting, a guaranteed recipe for failure. What works in a traditional classroom bears little similarity to what works online. Our schools have neglected to bring their educators into the information age.

The coronavirus crisis is forcing a reckoning. As with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in the 1950s, our schools are confronting a need to change for the betterment of future generations of children. There is no excuse for failing to connect in-classroom learning to the limitless possibilities of the internet. When teachers are taught to do so, it can alter the way they interact with their students both at home and in their classrooms.

Virtual teaching should engage students in the same way that outstanding teachers do in person. If you want to witness the potential of online learning, have your child use the internet to find answers to commonly asked questions from high schoolers, such as “why do I need to study Shakespeare?” and “what is algebra and why do I have to study it?”

Instead of dragging a dead frog out of a huge jar of smelly formaldehyde and having students dissect it to find out what’s inside of a frog, they can Google “what’s inside of a frog?” and get 23.7 million results — complete with photos, labels and YouTube videos. It’s pretty exciting. I wish such resources had been around when I was teaching biology several years ago.

I see the potential of online learning daily. No student graduates from my teacher education program without learning about virtual instruction and how to be a resource-rich problem-solver, regardless of the venue they are teaching in.

I have found that when teachers start using the internet as a primary resource, it changes the way that they teach not just online, but in their classrooms. They find resources that they didn’t know existed, from engaging yoga lessons for 5-year-olds to tours of Machu Picchu that are so realistic that a child feels like she is standing in the Peruvian mountains. It shouldn’t take a worldwide pandemic to teach our instructors to integrate rich educational content into remote instruction.

I have been an educator and entrepreneur for over 50 years. I can say from experience that virtual learning creates a more engaging environment for students than reading out of a textbook in front of a camera. The days of the teacher as dispenser of knowledge in a digital world are long gone. Instead of having students turn in their hand-held devices when they arrive at school, teachers need to be teaching them how to use those devices to learn.

This is one of the most difficult periods our schools have ever faced. But it can also serve as a wake-up call, an opportunity to reevaluate the way that teachers and children interact. Let’s use this moment to bring our schools into the 21st century. Our children deserve nothing less.

Feistritzer is the founder and CEO of TEACH-NOW Graduate School of Education, a technology-based teacher preparation program and degree-granting institution.

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