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  • Steve Taylor

The New (Virtual) Reality: Part II

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

The second of a three-part article by WillowWood's Steve Taylor, MBA

II. Into the Matrix

Online learning has been growing in popularity and availability since the early 2000s. The advancements in our technological capabilities that followed the dawn of the internet in the 90s, has been met with an increased demand for virtual learning. This form of education has become an exceedingly viable and attractive solution for meeting educational needs across the globe. University students take classes online to make their schedules more manageable; working adults learn through professional development webinars to advance their careers; and closer to home, some WillowWood’s past students have learned remotely through the Independent Learning Centre.

And yet, there is no denying that for the vast majority of us, our first real exposure to virtual learning was a shockingly new and non-elective experience. In March 2020, millions of Canadians were plunged into the deep end when the spread of COVID-19 forced school closures across the country. Overnight, anyone involved with education found themselves in a dark room, fumbling for the light switch. Teachers burned the midnight oil modifying their lessons to make them more tech-friendly, engaging, and interactive. Students found themselves in a new kind of classroom - a den, a kitchen, or a bedroom. Lessons presented by an enthusiastic teacher had been replaced by windows and mouse clicks. And parents? They got a free, white-knuckle ride through improper fractions, essay thesis statements, and the conjugations of irregular verbs in French. It was, to put it mildly, a shock to the system.

At the time this article was written, WillowWood School had completed its first quadmester. Luckily for us, it was not the first go-around with online learning. Our staff and technology experts worked diligently over the March break to ensure a smooth (mostly) transition to remote learning upon our return from the holidays. We were all comfortable with Zoom and teaching in a virtual setting by the time the academic calendar year started in September. So, here we are. But where do we stand?

Learning in and of itself has not changed; we are creating sets of links in our long-term memory and consolidating them with practice, but the setting has. Traditional learning occurs in the classroom while the virtual version exists online. In a classroom setting, teachers can take the temperature of the room by looking for cues and can adjust their tone and delivery style. They can keep their students’ attention by sheer force of personality or by physically moving through the classroom while talking, minimizing the distance between mentor and mentee. Compelling a group of students to listen for extended periods of time can be challenging in the traditional setting, so how do we keep them engaged when our charisma and presence are handicapped by distance? This is an even greater challenge for pupils who tend to learn visually or for those that have attention deficits. A student’s age will also have a considerable impact on how effectively they will process information presented online. Smaller discussion-based or conference-style lectures may work well for senior high school students, but it would be a comedy of errors to try to get a horde of first-graders to sit still through an hour-long seminar on adding apples. Lower and middle school students have had a much harder time adjusting to remote learning because their attention spans are generally shorter, and they require much more personal engagement and interaction. According to Erich Dietrich, a clinical professor of higher education and international education at New York University, the specific topic being taught matters. “Writing and a lot of the human and social sciences are a natural fit for online. Science is more difficult, because you need the space and the facilities for teamwork, and it is harder to develop soft skills like public speaking when you aren’t in person.” The lack of a rich social component – which has a beneficial impact on the overall student experience and by extension learning – is another hurdle to overcome. This is especially true for lower grades, who depend on peer-to-peer interactions to develop skills like group work and conflict resolution. So how do we address these issues? How do we make learning fun and engaging? How do we ensure that education delivered online is as effective as learning in the traditional setting? Stay tuned for Part III: Strategies for Success.


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