The Limitations of the Virtual Classroom

The Limitations of the Virtual Classroom
(Photo: Business Wire)

For the Class of 2020, the pomp of graduation is being silenced by the circumstance of pandemic. Yet, for many students, the greater loss will be the final weeks of their education. 

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Schools and teachers have done their best to shift instruction from the classroom to online platforms, such as Zoom. Since not all students have computing devices, and some—especially those in rural areas—often lack internet access, school administrators have had to seek workarounds. Many have dug into reserve funds or worked with business donors to equip students with what they need. 

Still, problems remain. A few students, the unmotivated ones, have taken campus closures as an excuse to forget their studies. Others, who lack the skills of “self-starters,” have trouble following online instructions. Some otherwise successful students have had to share limited bandwidth with parents working from home or siblings working on their own online lessons. Some teens are caring for younger siblings while parents work.

But there’s a bigger problem as well: Some subjects are difficult to teach online. They require analysis, conversation, feedback, give and take. 

In history and government classes in particular, students and teachers are discovering the “virtual” classroom’s limitations. The free software many students are using often limits class sessions to 40 minutes. Due to scheduling problems, administrators have combined sections of the same class. So, a teacher who before may have taught American history to 30 students now leads an online session for 60. With limited time, and so many faces on the other side of a screen, it’s hard to hold a constructive discussion.

Why is discussion important? At its best, education occurs through conversation and discussion. Students should question what they read. Then they discuss their questions, and the answers they find, with their teacher and classmates. Working together, they reconstruct not only what earlier Americans did, but why they did it.

When you read a good book attentively, you don’t just absorb the author’s ideas; you test them against your own. Similarly, good history teachers don’t emphasize mere memorization of facts. They present students with the ideas and arguments of those who lived in the past—the people who created this history—found in speeches, papers, letters and other writings. The best teachers engage students in discussions of such primary documents. The teacher doesn’t merely explain what motivated George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, F.D.R., and Martin Luther King Jr.; these and other architects of American history explain it in their own words.

Students taught this way receive the best possible civic education. They escape the present and better understand another time, confronting, in the process, the enduring problems of human social and political life. Students can draw on the past while deliberating solutions to the problems of the present. They can apply habits they learned in the classroom: taking turns in speaking, listening attentively, testing their reasoning against that of others—as they participate in public debate. 

There are ways to mitigate some of the inherent shortcomings of online instruction. Teachers who have participated in interactive online seminars themselves may be able to mirror that approach in their own online classes. For instance, the Ashbrook Center’s online graduate seminars for middle and high school social studies teachers, limited to 14 participants, come close to replicating in-person discussions. In high schools this spring, many alumni of our program are using “breakout rooms” to divide students into manageable discussion groups. 

But teachers without a model for effective online instruction usually conclude that real discussion is impossible during a Zoom meet. 

Educational policymakers who praise online education for its efficiency mistake the point of education. Education is not meant to be efficient. It is meant to develop the minds and characters of young Americans—a process that takes time.

Those who’ve enjoyed a thoughtful conversation with current classmates and past thinkers and leaders will miss something more important than graduation rituals this year. They’ll miss the chance to thank the teachers and fellow classmates who’ve helped them develop their capacity for thoughtful citizenship.

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