The Issue of E-learning

September 24, 2020

The+Issue+of+E-learning

Sabrina Barnes

Letter from the Editors

 What is the issue of e-learning?

Of all the questions to answer about ETHS this year, this has to be one of the most challenging, because it gets to the heart of what it means for a school to be a school. How does one even begin to answer this question? Well,the same way In-Depth would any question, copious emails, hours of interviews, pages and pages of annotated transcripts, meetings to organize these notes into something coherent…. Only to discover a day before the deadline that there was a fundamental flaw in the structures we’ve created. 

Okay. Let’s start again. Reorganize, restructure, rewrite. Something is still missing, but we can’t add more words. There’s too much content and yet far too little. 

The issue with e-learning is that every point is connected to one another in a web that remains tangled and chaotic. Say a curriculum is changing. Why is this the case? There’s less class time to teach it, but, more importantly, school requires students, in a community, working together. That can’t happen during e-learning. Why can’t communities develop? There’s a lack of connection due to the fragmented nature of e-learning, a fragmented nature caused in-part by feelings of isolation and alienation that have dominated this year. Why are students feeling these emotions? Perhaps because they can’t form communities and aren’t given the ability to due to limited time. This isolation can lead to feelings of depression and lack of motivation, leading to an inability to grasp materials, meaning that less curriculum is being understood and more time is needed to fully teach it. Everything loops together into a terrible, knotted mess that leaves us screaming into the darkness, begging for a change, a connection, or a resolution. This isn’t the fault of ETHS. There is no one to blame, and this same article could be written about thousands of schools across the nation.

Given this mess, the issue of e-learning is not something we can address in its entirety in one piece. Consider this to be an introduction to the complicated web that we have thrown ourselves into and follow The Evanstonian as we continue to parse through this web.

 

Zachary Bahar, Lauren Dain

Executive Editor, In-Depth Editor

Changing Curriculums

The 2020 school year is in full swing and has seen a beginning like no other in ETHS history. Students no longer attend school in a building but from their rooms, their couches, or their yards. E-learning has changed everything we thought we knew about attending school, and the way that classes are taught—from the structure, to the content, and everything in between—has been no exception.

“I think that ETHS has done a really good job using [its] resources to the best of its ability. I think it was such a hard time with almost no precedent [for] what to do, and that they have been doing the best that they can as a school,” sophomore Zoe Kaufman says.

E-learning has dramatically changed since March 16, when ETHS initially began school remotely, and administrators have different expectations and guidelines for both students and teachers. Expectations built around improving the student experience.

“My expectations going in were to have more synchronous learning opportunities for students, a consistent schedule for students, a more organized delivery system. We also wanted to focus on building relationships in the context of the classroom, because we knew that students were really missing that,”  Peter Bavis, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, says.

These changes were implemented through the support of an e-learning academy that ensured that teachers understood the tools at their disposal and how to use them.  

One aspect of the e-learning classroom is a reduced period of time per week in each class; a reduction from 200 live minutes per week to 140, a 30 percent decrease.

“To me, it seems like each class period would be about the same as if we had a 50-minute class together… so really when some schools are having five 50-minute classes a week, we’re having two,” says math teacher Julie Brady.

A lack of time is providing teachers with no choice but to cut material they would normally be able to cover, for the sake of the students and themselves. For some classes, this is proving more challenging than others. 

“In BC Calculus, for example, we did some things that were extra, but we can’t ultimately reduce that much… But in a course like Algebra II, we can take the breadth of the curriculum and say, ‘What do they really need or what did they already see in Algebra I, and what will they cover again in Pre-Calc?’” says math department chair Dale Leibforth.

As a result, many teachers are rethinking what the most essential elements of their curriculum are and are ensuring that students have a solid grasp of them before continuing. 

“I’m trying to really lead with the best foot, with the biggest ideas that are going to play out and our most important assignments, to practice those now, to really get the groundwork down for what we’re trying to build and what we’re trying to do,” English teacher Evan Belgrade says. 

This challenge is particularly hard for science, arts and CTE classes which are reliant on hands-on experiences in labs and studios. 

“That is the trickiest part we’re working on, and teachers are finding virtual labs, virtual simulations, some are coming into the building to record themselves so students can at least see the setup and the materials they would’ve been using, but it’s still not the same level of engagement as putting things in the hands of students,” science department chair Terri Sowa-Imbo says.

Traditional methods of assessing and providing feedback to students have also evolved as the challenges of assessing students at home present themselves. 

“I’m seeing everything from explanation videos to timing and speed tests, so I think that’s different from what we normally do,” said Bavis. “These are all new ways of understanding what students are thinking and how they’re thinking.”

These changes have raised concerns among both students and staff who feel that these systems, which range wildly, will lead to inaccurate impressions of student learning.

“I am concerned that students’ grades will not accurately reflect what they have learned,” math teacher Avani Khandhar says. “My hope is that people use this as an opportunity to really learn and think about why they’re learning.”

Besides the academic changes that have been made, students need functioning Chromebooks, reliable internet connections and easy access to school resources—such as technical support, reference databases, science and art supplies—for e-learning to be effective. Administrators, teachers and staff are working hard to make sure students have what they need. However, problems naturally arise, which makes e-learning difficult. 

In a survey taken by The Evanstonian, of the 430 students who provided written responses, 27.7 percent of students reported that some of their major issues are with Chromebook problems and connectivity issues. The instructional and informational technology department recognizes how tech issues can cause difficulties for students.

“ETHS is a high school that has the one-to-one program, which means that for every student who comes into our building, they get technology, they get a Chromebook,” student tech support center coordinator Dora Bollinger says. “It’s a great program, but the hurdles that we always face [are] that even though children get the technology, something sometimes happens at home.”

Accessibility to education is now dependent on technology and resources. Student support staff are attempting to make it easier for families who were not initially equipped to handle e-learning by providing hotspots for their home, as well as remote Chromebook repair and other essentials for classwork.

Overtly, a student’s success correlates with the level at which they engage in class, something teachers and students alike think is lacking in the current system.

“You have to be more self-disciplined, because no one’s going to tell you ‘You can’t be on your phone in class,’ or just kind of knock you on the head, in a way,” senior Emily Ho says. “[Especially since,] it’s more difficult to focus at home… without the academic focus I have at school. 

It’s also much more difficult for teachers to gain insight into the thought processes of their students without the ability to have one-on-one conversations and interactions.

“Typically in a classroom, I could just peek over your shoulder and see work. So, even if it was nonverbal, I would figure out whether they’re learning the material correctly,” Khandhar says, “I am worried that students who struggle with school really have to be a lot more proactive to be successful. Those students are gonna fall through the cracks a little bit.”

Changing Communities 

ETHS has been in session for over a month and the environment is undeniably different than in past years; the largest changes being attributed to communication and community building. 

“[Prior to e-learning] I thought I was never going to get to know my students,” Khandhar says, “Typically, at this point in the school year, I would know everyone, not well, but at least know your name and maybe a couple of things about you. I can’t claim that yet, but I feel positive that I’m going to get there, and I’m hoping that my students get there, too, with each other.”

A major struggle teachers are facing right now is attempting to achieve a sense of community in their classes. Consequently, students have appreciated efforts made by their teachers to replicate a classroom environment, but, generally, they have noticed a lack of community.

“[Teachers are] trying [to build community], but nothing is the same as in person,” senior Quintin Brown says. “Nothing can be the same, because there’s always a side comment that you would make to your friends. . . That’s just impossible now. It’s the small stuff that goes into building friendships and relationships that’s lacking in e-learning.”

While many teachers are using tools like breakout rooms and discussion boards to allow students to make connections with others, it is impossible to replicate the one-on-one interaction Brown describes.

“There’s no playbook on [how to build community remotely]: you put students in breakout rooms, you give them prompts, you try to get to know your students. But, it’s always going to be a bit artificial since you’re not face-to-face,” Bavis says.

Even in classes where people are talking and engaging with others, there is a tendency towards awkward environments due to the artificiality that Bavis mentions.   

“Some of my classes are a little awkward because when they put us in a breakout room, it’s awkward when you don’t know the people… it kind of depends on the class and the way that you know the teachers conducting it,”  freshman Anika Radhakrishnan says. “I’ve made one friend, which I think is pretty cool, because we’re remote.”

Further hindering new friendships and connections is the difficulty many are feeling in reaching out to new people rather than simply staying in groups that they are familiar with—a challenge that has been increased by the distance created by e-learning.

“I’m able to connect to some of the people in my classes, but, at the same time, I don’t know if it’s just because I’m a senior, or just because we’re at home and not able connect with the people around us physically, I’ve been more sticking to people that I know in my classes,” Ho says.

This lack of connection is inevitably impacting the quality of education and support that teachers are able to provide, with some feeling that the lack of discussions is harming the educational experience.

“We are social beings and we learn in community. I cannot teach you without getting your input, and I feel now that I’m in Zoom with my Spanish speakers and I am so bored. I have never been bored, but I’m talking to them saying ‘Hello! Is anyone there? Any opinion about this? and it’s only *crick crick.* I don’t know how to do it,” Spanish teacher Iciar Niharra says. “How can I teach Spanish, a spoken language, if you don’t talk?”

Many teachers express that not sharing a classroom with their students has made teaching and connecting with students more difficult; a challenge made especially difficult when students turn their video off.

“It is really hard to connect with students.  I have about 170 of them, and many of them never show their faces or speak during class.  The ones I’m able to connect with the best are those that show up to AM support—I can actually talk to them as individuals,” math teacher Thomas Draganski says. “I think the one request I could ask of students is to turn your camera on and interrupt frequently.  When a teacher is just talking to a dark screen, they have no idea what is working or not.”

Students are allowed to keep cameras off due to the school’s devotion to ensuring equity for all students.

“We have an equity in e-learning framework, what can anti-racist pedagogy look like during e-learning, that’s why some of you may recognize that we try not to make a big deal about cameras, because there are so many implications about being in people’s homes,” Principal Marcus Campbell says.

While there are those, like Campbell, who are firmly in the camp of allowing students to keep cameras off, there are some teachers who worry this will have the opposite of the intended effect.

“One of the things that I most worry about is that for years we’ve been working to close the achievement gap. When I started working at ETHS, I had three Latino kids in my AP classes, and now I have 30: ten times more. I always feel that it is because we were really working to give access to all these students who traditionally were never in AP classes, but these kids need more in-person support and encouragement, and now I’m not there,” Niharra says. “We were the ones that took care of many of them before, now there’s no one… their parents may be away at work, lack the resources, etc. . . . The problem is that in Evanston, we’re saying that we’re doing all these things for equity’s sake, but I believe remote learning is causing the opposite, widening the gap.”

 

Mental Health & Wellbeing

It is no secret that learning through a computer and in a classroom are two completely different experiences, and, aside from an educational standpoint, it is essential to recognize the effects of e-learning with regards to the mental health and wellbeing implications it can have on staff and students.

“It’s been a little stressful just because of the whole thing. It makes you a little anxious with [the] coronavirus, and when we are going to get back to normal too… but it hasn’t been overwhelming,” Radhakrishnan said. “Teachers understand that this is new for us, especially freshmen, since it’s our first year.”

Both staff and students must work to learn effective methods of navigating a completely online curriculum. Bavis emphasizes that teachers are prioritizing an easygoing and understanding mindset now more than ever. 

“One of the benefits is how amazing and flexible our teachers are in this environment. It’s one thing to be a masterful teacher, in their element, doing their thing, doing very high-level instruction, but the ability to transition as much and as well as they have [is totally different],” Bavis says.

While teachers are striving to be considerate of students, some feel a level of sympathy is not reciprocated by the administration. 

“I am working more than ever, I go to bed so late. Before, I could go to class and say ‘Today, we’re going to learn about Hernan Cortez,’ everything is in [my head], so I can just go, boom, read to you guys and discuss,” Niharra explains. “Right now… in order to do a good job, I have to do recordings of entire classes, feedback, explanations. We’re available nearly 24/7, accepting assignments at all times, and sometimes it feels like there is an expectation of immediate response, grading of a late turned-in assignment and the like. It does not feel the same on our side, that teachers are being cut any slack.”

Regardless of teaching experience, the limitations of e-learning have burdened all teachers with an extensive workload as they attempt to effectively deliver education through a computer screen. This workload becomes even more intense given the disintegration of the divide between the personal and the academic.

“The hardest part for me, transitioning to e-learning, is balancing the expectations to do that well for all my students and balancing the well-being and education of my daughter here in my home,” Belgrade says. 

It’s not only teachers struggling to balance the two; managing school and personal life is always tricky for high school students but, as with everything, the problems in a virtual setting only intensify.

“Having a twin brother, a little brother that just started sixth grade and my mom who’s a third-grade teacher [means that] everybody’s zooming. I live in a one-floor house; it’s not very big, and you can hear the teacher from the other room,” sophomore Boaz Lieberman says. “It’s hard having everybody bunched up in the same spot.”

Despite all of these challenges, most teachers are doing their best to honor students’ humanity at such a crucial moment.

“I feel like it can be more difficult to connect with someone over technology, because I feel that a physical presence kind of changes how you can make a connection with someone…. [Especially] with mental health, just being vulnerable and willing to open up to someone about things like that, it’s just a lot more difficult online,” Ho says.

English teacher Elizabeth Hartley says she’s trying to understand the student’s perspective on e-learning and be less strict about certain in-person policies. In-person, phones are prohibited in most classrooms, but teachers are acknowledging that those distractions are unavoidable during remote learning. 

“We’re all multitasking. Be reasonable when you are requiring kids to stare at your stupid face on a screen for 70 minutes… It has to just be exhausting. And I think about it from my point of view, what it means to me to put that kind of energy out for seven 70 minutes of sustained lecturing and talking. So engagement. I think if I were to say that I’m doing anything in particular to promote engagement, I would just say I’m not talking as much,” Hartley says.

With all classes taking place online, many students are experiencing screen fatigue, which is affecting their ability to stay focused and learn. Many say that staring at a screen all day with little social or teacher interaction has been draining. They also comment on the negative effect of sitting for most of the day and not being able to move around and have a change in scenery. In a survey taken by The Evanstonian, 72.0 percent of students who provided written responses reported that during this school year they are suffering exhaustion and lack of motivation.

“After the first week, I was exhausted . . . I’ve been experiencing some Zoom fatigue, or staring at the screen for too long, but I have to say that the teachers are doing a pretty good job despite the circumstances. They’ve been doing some engaging lesson plans, which is great. They’ve had to improvise, because it’s a totally different learning environment,” Radhakrishnan says.

The repetitiveness of Zoom meetings and classes is also contributing to student fatigue. Many students are expressing their wish for some variety and more opportunities to mentally and physically reset.  Suggestions have included longer breaks between classes and for taking some classes outside; however, even these are half-measures compared to the power of a restorative community.

“I think one of the things that’s been big for me is getting outside and seeing sunshine and hanging out with some friends outside of school.… but that’s been pretty important for me is to maintain those out of class friendships,” says Brown.

While maintaining friendships is essential, it will not undo the sacrifices that have been made this year, and it will not reset the world to where it was on March 13.  

“We know that e-learning requires a lot of sacrifices and tradeoffs. There are so many things about being in-person and attending your school that we’ve all had to give up. I won’t pretend that e-learning is our first choice. I will say that it’s our best choice,” Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said. “We as a school—the faculty and everything they’ve put into this, what all of [the students] are doing in response to that now that classes have started—are really impressed with how everyone is making it work…. While there are other kinds of sacrifices, let’s not sacrifice the learning.”  

Where does this leave us? All of these issues—curriculums, communities, mental health—are all parts of the student experience that are now altered. Schools, including ETHS, must weigh these challenges that will shape the future of ETHS against the weight of 200,000 dead. 

So here we are, tossed on a sea of uncertainty, on a boat in constant flux as the winds and the tides rock to and fro. Waiting, waiting for the winds to shift. 

In-Depth’s coverage of “The Issue of E-Learning” will continue in The Evanstonian’s November spread.

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