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The Digital Learning Dilemma

Teachers and Students Grapple with This New Normal

Noah Jenkins
Online Editor & Publisher
December 10, 2020 3:34 PM
Administration wishes students would turn and keep their cameras on to remain engaged in the class (Chris Montgomery/Unsplash)
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Note: This story was originally produced over a month ago. Information, dates, predictions, and other details may be outdated.

Out of the numerous challenges and “new normals” COVID-19 has created, by far one of the most noticeable changes is the reliance, or necessity some will say, of video conferencing services. The idea of “zooming” someone was a not often thought of concept to most, and, in my case, Microsoft Teams was a niche platform used for only a club or two before the pandemic, however now you literally cannot function without it. This idea cannot be any truer for the multitudes of Saint Cloud’s digital students who rely on the integrity of one of these platforms, the aforesaid Microsoft Teams, for their education.  

With this said, however, as with any substantive lifestyle change that onsets this quickly, there were bound to be bumps on the road. As I am a digital learner myself, I can attest to many of the problems that have been afflicted my fellow schoolmates. Luckily, I have decent internet at my house, so little issues have arisen as a result of that, however I could only imagine those who do not. Teams, on the other hand, has proved itself the fount of problems spanning from the app claiming no internet was available, even though it very much was, to it simply refusing to open after trying for 20 minutes before first period. One time, in fact, Teams even decided it would be best to completely shut down in the middle of a class.

Little did I know, as a student, I had it easy. Environmental science teacher Ms. Kimberlee McMillan was kind enough to allow me to peek behind the curtain and see into her world. Most students, in the drudgery that exists between homework, extracurriculars, and the numerous other stressors high schoolers have to endure, forget the highly complex and systemic work our teachers have to do prior to any of us coming to class—and that was before COVID.

Girl completes school work on laptop (Magnet.me/Unsplash)

McMillan recounts particularly struggling with the massive weight of learning how to use online programs being dropped on her already full plate: “I had never taught online before COVID…I am not tech savvy and get frustrated with technology during my online classes. I am spending a lot of time trying to convert, what I once made for copies, into Word documents or some other form of document to allow online students to access these. There is just not enough time in the day for this [,] but I am trying my best.”

And that is all we really can ask of our teachers during this time. We must remember this difficult, quite annoying situation is no one’s fault. Students, it is not your teachers and teachers, it is not the administration or district. So often, probably due to sheer human nature, we rush to try to find someone to place blame on, but I am confident to the point where it is almost fact that this approach is seldom productive.

Notwithstanding, there are other aspects of digital learning that are admittedly positive. When Fabiola Mendez Rivera, grade 12, told me that the experience has “been really calming” despite the woes of senior year plaguing her, I immediately realized virtual learning certainty has its benefits.  

For one, digital learners do not have to worry about transportation, saving much time and resources. In fact, one could extend this idea to the entire routine. Digital students need not wake up and do the usual procedure they do to get themselves ready for to go outside, now they can literally roll out of the bed one minute before first period. Heck, they could, in theory they could go to class in bed. You know what, with Teams allowing mic muting and optional video, they could easy “go to class” without truly going to class at all.

And thus, we have arrived at a problem—a problem many teachers and administrators quickly came to realization of as school began. Ms. Lonita Giovannini, a math teacher here at SCHS, shared how “…digital classes never seem to cover quite as much as my face to face classes because of the tech issues or even just the waiting after you call on a student for them to answer. Sometimes students…don't answer at all, which is frustrating not only for me but for the rest of the class as well.”

McMillan also shared a similar but different sentiment saying: “I also believe that COVID has made younger online learners—freshman—very lazy. They show up late all the time in my meeting which causes me to have to stop my lesson to go into the meeting window and admit them. [A lot] of time is being wasted and they are not turning in assignments on time. I don't think they are taking this type of school seriously.”  

SCHS Principal Nate Fancher announces camera policy for digital learners on September 11, 2020 (Saint Cloud High School)

The issue she brings up here is one I never considered. Like our seniors who are being robbed of their ultimate year in high school, our freshmen are being robbed of their first, although arguably to a lesser degree. With this, though, comes a lack of conditioning—that is, some of our freshmen do not get a true understanding not only of the rigors of high school, but the expectations demanded of them.

As a result of numerous concerns like the ones Giovannini and McMillan expressed, Principal Nate Fancher pronounced on September 11 that all SCHS students would have to have their cameras on as proof they are attentive in class. The efficacy of this rule is questionable, however.

Lastly, I would be remiss if the social aspect of this entire situation was not at least touched upon. McMillan noted in school: “I have also noticed that the school culture within the students is not like it was last year. The students have very little time to mingle with friends right now.”

The effect of this is only exacerbated for digital students as side conversation have been rendered virtually impossible due to the nature of virtual classrooms—not to mention the aforesaid camera problem. For someone like me, who thrives off small talk, this situation is particularly challenging. Nevertheless, it is the reality—a reality that will hopefully change soon—but is what we are going to have endure in the interim.

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