When my son’s school moved online in March, I, like many parents, hated it. There were too many moving parts, and I was overwhelmed trying to figure out things like where and when we were supposed to log in, in between attempting to get my own work done, as a freelance writer.
My nine-year-old doesn’t know how to type, so completing assignments online took him forever. We don’t have a printer, meaning that I had to copy out the worksheets his teacher posted by hand so he could fill them out, which also took forever. On top of all that, I wondered just how much he could be getting out of it. Surely one hour of online teaching per day was a weak substitute for hours and hours of in-class learning?
I assumed my son felt the same way as I did about distance learning. To my surprise, he actually loved it. He missed his friends, of course, but for him there ended up being a lot of upsides.
Some of the positives were predictable: There was no morning rush to get ready and catch the bus. The condensed schedule meant he had hours of free time to do whatever he wanted. And he got a hot home-cooked lunch every day. Some were more unexpected, like the fact that being able to fidget or idly play with LEGO or even get up and walk around during lessons was actually hugely beneficial to him, both from sensory-seeking and learning perspectives.
I’d always known my son processed information better when he was physically active, but my focus as a parent had been on helping him try to adapt to the classroom, to learn to sit still. Now that the learning environment had accidentally adapted itself to his needs, he was thriving. Previously a reluctant reader, by the end of June, he’d jumped several reading levels in the span of a few months. When I spoke to other parents about my son’s surprising appreciation of learning at home, I found out he wasn’t the only one.
Sabrina Holland, a former high school English teacher who currently works as a technology director for an education non-profit, was also leery about distance learning at first. When her local schools in Bozeman, Montana, shifted online in the spring, she offered to oversee the education of her two step-children, Mikhail (12) and Louise (9), but she worried about how well it would work. She was especially anxious for Mikhail, who has a diagnosis of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and who, even with supports and accommodations at school, struggled to feel confident in the classroom.
“The first two or three weeks were really challenging as we found our rhythm, but it was neat to be able to figure out the ways that he learned,” says Holland. Having one-on-one time with Mikail meant she could teach him new ways of tackling school assignments, like using the Pomodoro Technique for time management. “We did every optional assignment, we went hard, and he did so well. His confidence has skyrocketed. And now he knows the ways that he learns best, and how he can stay organized and approach new stuff.” Holland was amazed to discover that not only did Mikail take to distance learning easily, but his grades actually improved under the new system.
Holland also credits the teachers in their district, who she says went above and beyond in making sure that kids were adjusting to distance learning. Their school board will be offering a hybrid plan in the fall, with the option for students to do everything online, and her family is seriously considering taking that route.
Liz Moore, a distance learning teacher in Merritt, British Columbia, has known for a few years that her daughter does far better with online learning than conventional schooling. Seventeen-year-old Olivia, who has been diagnosed with autism, ADHD and anxiety, had always found face-to-face learning very challenging, even with classroom accommodations. Then, two years ago, she enrolled in an online class over the summer. Moore was skeptical at first, thinking that it might be too much for her daughter, but Olivia thrived. She could get up and walk around while learning, or play music – both of which are things that help her focus and that are (understandably) distractions for others in a classroom. She also found the predictable nature of online courses helpful.
“In distance learning, you can see the entire course from start to finish, you know what your goals are, and the rubrics are so clear,” says Moore. “She always knew what was expected of her. And with the distance learning design, there’s no time limit, which means lots of time to review. It made it easy for her to succeed.”
Olivia spent the next few years cross-enrolled, which meant that she was doing some classes online and some face-to-face. When all of her classes moved to distance learning during the pandemic, her engagement, enjoyment and grades all improved. Moore is hopeful her daughter will be able to continue to do all of her classes online in the fall. But while she’s glad they’ve found what works for Olivia, she worries, nonetheless, that not enough attention will go into offering families a range of educational choices, so they can opt for what works best for them.
“I hope that every parent has the option to keep their kid safe – physically, mentally, emotionally, academically – which will look different for everyone,” she says. “We’ll need a bit of a buffet.”
Janine Hubbard, a registered psychologist who works with children in St. John’s, Newfoundland, isn’t surprised that some children who struggled in the classroom are succeeding when it comes to distance learning. She suspects it will benefit many children with a range of learning styles and needs: those who move at a faster or slower pace than their peers, those who need more movement or sensory input, those who process information differently. For children who have more of a self-directed learning style, online learning gives opportunities to delve deeper into topics that pique their interest. For children who have been resistant to using assistive technology in the classroom, due to embarrassment, it means they can do so without being observed or judged by their classmates.
“It also means more participation in group discussions for kids with social anxiety or who struggle with communication,” says Hubbard. “And it gives them the opportunity to ask their teacher for help separately, through emailing or a private chat box [on their learning platform].”
But, Hubbard cautions, it’s not automatically for everyone. Some students whose learning style might seem to lend itself to distance learning could still do better in the classroom, for a range of reasons: how much parental support is available at home, how much privacy they have, the level of access they have to devices and wifi. Hubbard echoes Moore about what education could and should look like going forward: “In an ideal world, we’d offer families the choice.”
When it comes to my son, I’m not entirely certain what his future holds. I know that even though he enjoyed distance learning, he’s eager to be with his school friends again. It’s hard to figure out what would be best for him and, like many other parents, I go back and forth on what to do this September. But it does feel like a strange gift to suddenly have this new information about how he learns best that I might not have figured out, had there been no pandemic. If there is anything good that comes out of this awful time, maybe it will be a better understanding of how schools and parents can work together to customize learning for all the kids who operate outside the box.
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