Online-learning in the Time of Coronavirus

By Jennifer Yarnall, full-time middle school science teacher enrolled in the Digital Media Design for Learning Masters program and part time Killer Snails intern


At the outset of the pandemic, many educators were caught off-guard by the demands of remote teaching. As a middle school science teacher,  I already employ a variety of online and computer-based technological tools in my classroom to help cultivate knowledge, skills and understanding among my students. I perceived that the transition to remote learning would be somewhat similar to my current style of teaching. I was sorely mistaken! 

We started with our school’s online learning platform, Schoology Conferences. This system was overwhelmed with the increased usage demand, so we moved to Google Hangouts, which really isn’t designed from a teaching viewpoint. We are now on our third option, Zoom, which appears to have all the capabilities we are looking for, although recent reports of security flaws are a concern. 

I quickly realised that I often rely heavily on my physical presence in the classroom to help resolve in-the-moment confusion or short-term difficulties that the students experienced. Teaching remotely to a group of twenty-five, 10-12 year olds on a screen via teleconference does not afford me this luxury.

At first, my approach to online was similar to my approach in the classroom. However, I found that it was immensely difficult to help individual students one-on-one, to identify who is struggling with the content, failing to remain attentive or losing motivation. Even with detailed lesson plans, prepared materials, and differentiated resources for the students, teaching online proved difficult. I could always fall back on my instincts within the classroom, but my teacher’s ‘spidey sense’ wasn’t readily able to detect these warning signs through their screens, and I felt I had lost my presence as a teacher.

Below are a few of the problems that I have identified both with teaching and technology during this experience:

  • Distractions - With other members of their family now working from home, students are struggling to find workspaces that are conducive to learning and independent study. Siblings, pets, smart phones, snacks, all are distractions that were not previously present in the classroom environment. 
  • Technological Glitches- This will always be an issue with remote learning; poor sound quality,  feedback delays, loss of video communication, inability to control muting /unmuting, unreliable internet connections... the list is endless.
  • Questions - Although questions in a classroom setting are a great way for students to think critically, challenge interpretations, receive clarification, and communicate their ideas, in an online setting, these questions tend to be more geared towards ‘housekeeping’ items. These include troubleshooting issues with their software or devices, requests to repeat information, or confirmation of due dates and schedule etc. Their questions often tend to be less about the actual content or refining the learning process but rather more superficial and administrative in nature. 
  • “Kids will be kids” - While adolescent in age, developmentally the students are still  young children. Often students they lack the internal coping mechanisms to regulate their behaviour, monitor their needs or self-motivate. Many are finding it difficult being at home, in an environment that they would not typically associate as a place of work or study. Similar to their parents who are encountering the same challenges of working remotely, the children are also trying to adjust. 

I’ve had to find new ways to engage the students in order to create learning environments that rely less on the conventional synchronous, ‘teacher as oracle’ style of learning, and instead turn to alternative asynchronous exercises that are more rooted in design; project-based, student-driven, creative, ‘classroom’ learning. 

Below are a few key points that I have learned from this experience:

  • Try not to overwhelm them - Like all of us, the children are already struggling with the effects of the pandemic such as anxiety, social isolation, and physical confinement. There is no benefit in burdening them with excessive amounts of information, or the regular demands of school. Likewise, I help to ensure that all of the necessary resources are accessible, intelligible and easy to find. Most of them are just happy to have an opportunity for social interaction as well as some semblance of routine, so I focus more on making them feel comfortable, helping them to smile, and reconnect with one another and less the content.
  • Quality over quantity - This applies to both in-classroom and remote education. As noted above, we cannot expect to apply the same format for learning or production as when teaching the students face-to-face. Certainly under the current conditions the means of production has changed. Prepare meaningful, skills-based projects directed towards enriching the act of learning rather than rushing through unrealistic standards. 
  • Limit distractions - Smartphones and domestic distractions need to be kept to a minimum.  Even in a traditional classroom setting, smartphones have been the primary source of unnecessary stress and aggravation to teachers.  The simplest and most effective solution is to remove the temptation and encourage students to put these devices away during both synchronous and asynchronous learning.
  • Assessment and Learning Objectives - Clear communication of learning objectives at the outset of an assignment helps to direct the students by letting them know the point of an activity, and directly feeds back to assessment.
  • Provide Feedback - Meaningful, timely and constructive feedback is vital for online education.  In the absence of  essential ‘in-person’ cues, the best way to help students and overcome this challenge is to provide appropriate feedback. This can come both externally from their teachers and peers as well as internally through self-guided reflection

Unfortunately, for many we are living in uncertain times and as we struggle to navigate these uncharted territories it is important to remember that this is still and will continue to be a work in progress, the more that I am willing to experiment and try different strategies, the more that I find my teacher’s 'spidey sense’ is returning. 

KillerSnails produces interactive science VR experiences such as BioDive and the upcoming GeoForge which are compatible with personal computing devices (e.g. phone or laptop), and NGSS aligned. The platforms are devised to enhance learning in the classroom through the use of technology, inquiry skills and exploratory learning. Built around an ’in-person’ classroom environment, the software relies on a teacher to lead the discussion, help students who are struggling and facilitate group collaboration. One of the great things about KiIlerSnails VR experiences is that the lessons are fully developed (NGSS aligned) so a teacher can pretty much step into the activities ‘as is’ with little modification and deliver it to their class. Teachers receive a guide consisting of lesson plans, step-by-step instructions, tutorial navigation, recommendations for appropriate questions and discussion points as well as potential areas of misconception.

Although designed as an ‘in-classroom’ learning experience, in the case of BioDive, the software can easily be converted into a remote learning experience for students with the help of a telecommunication platform like Zoom. Most of the activities can be completed asynchronously by students, with remote interaction at the start of the lesson explaining the task and providing clarifying questions, and again at the end of class using breakout rooms to allow for in-depth discussions and reflections. In my opinion, the experience pretty much ticks all the boxes. All that the students require to get started is a personal computing device and Google Cardboard (optional) to play the games and complete the online science journal exercises. BioDive further scored high marks for having clear learning objectives, connections to real life experiences, meaningful learning opportunities, and immediate feedback through preprogrammed online questions. 

The development of more, stimulating online educational platforms like those created by KillerSnails will significantly enrich teacher's and student’s learning experiences. Teachers have a lot on their plate at the moment, so being able to step directly into this learning experience, without the need for extensive preparation, and still provide students with an abundance of learning opportunities, is of significant help.