Based on my parenting experience, I immediately associate the word “virtual” with meaning “almost.” That there’s been a diminished effort, something watered down or, very simply, done half-assed.
And, to date, my inclination to disregard anything my kids say is virtual has been proven right. Virtually every time.
Everett, my 5-year-old “picked up virtually all the LEGOs.” Then, after tucking him in, my bare foot steps entirely on one of those little, yellow character heads.
Yosef, my oldest, said he “did virtually all of my math.” Never mind his weekly progress reports littered with the word “incomplete.”
My 3-year-old says she ate “virtually all of my green beans.” She says it emphatically as if she has earned the right to move on to dessert. Meanwhile, four lonely beans grow cold next to her plate.
This is why I quickly dismissed the concept of my fifth grader, Lynden, attending advanced math class via a virtual school setting this semester. I was fine with the, pardon the term, old-school, brick-and-mortar structure my kids attend – no need for any virtual school here, thank you very much and good day, sir!
But, like most modern parents, I shelved my initial hesitation to make sure Lynden had access to an opportunity I didn’t. We decided to give virtual school a try and, to date, my preconceived notions of it being “almost school” have been entirely wrong. Virtually.
Virtual math class has been tough for my son. An otherwise good student who rarely needs to expend too much effort, Lynden cries every day about something related to the online class: misunderstanding concepts, complaints about poor example problems given, or at his failed attempts at using alternative methods to solve problems. My wife and I are constantly fielding questions from Lynden – often as he fights back tears – seeking clarity on topics covered in the course materials that he skimmed through too quickly.
In general, I don’t enjoy seeing any of my kids struggle, but, in this case, I kind of like it. Success at his elementary school has come easy for Lynden and I fear he has started figuring out that a 90 percent yields the same grade as a 100 percent. So why put in the extra effort? Having him pound us with questions for his online class has made it clear that in school he is spoon-fed concepts by a teacher ready to swoop in when a student hits a speed bump.
This virtual school experience has shaken his complacency and is forcing him to use (or develop) skills that the traditional, classroom setting is not:
Virtual Lesson #1: Keeping pace on one’s own
Lynden must manage his schedule to meet deadlines without a plan that has been laid out for him. The virtual school provides guidance regarding keeping up and milestones to make sure students remain on pace. In school, though, adults tell the students exactly what today’s work will be, remind them of impending deadlines and often give the test’s content in advance.
As he progresses through higher grades and into the workforce, no one will tell Lynden the sequence of steps needed to be successful. Rather, deadlines will exist and the path to those due dates will be irrelevant.
Virtual Lesson #2: Figure it out for yourself
Lynden came into the virtual school needing a constant lifeline – an on-call expert who would appear at his side during any times of ambiguity or struggle. That mentality doesn’t work in a virtual learning setting. Whether in school, at work or in the arena, no one should get 100 on everything the first time. Missing problems and grinding through the rework to find the solution is a critical life lesson.
Virtual Lesson #3: Work well with others even if they aren’t in the room
The virtual classroom mandates healthy, online collaboration with other students. Watching Lynden learn how to work with others online intrigues me. I’m convinced this is a necessary skill he must develop. Working remotely with colleagues of varying experience levels and with differing viewpoints will be the way of getting things done in the future. Virtual school is teaching Lynden this lesson for the first time in fifth grade.
While I’ve come around on the benefits of young kids learning remotely, I’ll stop short of saying virtual school is a 1-to-1 substitute for the standard elementary school experience. Kids do need the socialization and face-to-face interactions that a school day provides. However, they also need to understand how to work with people in other places, to manage their own schedule and to develop the persistence needed to grind through lessons without the crutch of a teacher there to clear up any immediate confusion.
Online learning is here to stay – in my house and, if it isn’t already, in yours soon. That should excite, not scare, us parents. I’m virtually certain of it.
Photo: Tobin Walsh