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Outline: This blog post will explore the changing nature of education in the face of COVID-19, breaking down the factors involved in virtual education and explaining how visual interaction utilizing available technology significantly improves the quality of education delivered through an online platform. We will go over the challenges facing students and obstacles facing educators in a world suddenly affected by physical distancing and quarantine orders.

Key words: COVID-19; Education Sector; Visual Communication; Technology; Online Learning; Virtual Education;

Author: Anastasia Moskvitina


Importance of “Virtual Face-to-Face Communication” education during COVID-19

In the beginning of April this year, the Ontario government transitioned all learning online as COVID-19 forced classrooms to shut down in the name of physical distancing. Globally, as other countries followed suit, this left 1.5 billion children to navigate the world of learning totally online. Educators are going though a massive transition with little time to prepare and many obstacles to overcome. How can we keep our students on track in their educational goals with no physical classrooms to keep us gathered together and learning? Experts agree the number one factor for success in school and life during this pandemic is to maintain communication, especially face-to-face, as much as possible. If we simply hand out assignments and leave students to complete them in isolation with no human contact, there will be a steep decline in learning outcomes and students’ mental health in general. If we make the effort to utilize available video technology and created virtual meeting spaces for students, we are much more likely to maintain a higher level of education and make it through these difficult times together.

Let’s take a glance at some important factors in online learning and discuss how the “Face-to-Face Factor” plays a role in achieving their success:

Motivation

Arguably the most important fundamental factor in any student’s success is the desire, willingness and discipline to complete a course with a positive learning outcome, and get a good grade. Many students in all age groups can struggle with sticking to their studies throughout the school year in a traditional classroom setting. Unfortunately studies have found that this factor increases in the classrooms when they are moved to a virtual setting. It can be more difficult to understand material, maintain focus, ask questions and have discussions with your peers when everyone is sitting behind a screen. We must all do our part to make sure students stay motivated and engaged, and by communicating face to face, albeit through a screen, we can maintain some of the sense of normalcy that we had before COVID-19 impacted our lives. If we can see each other’s faces and not just hear voices or modules through a computer, we’re all more likely to continue our desire to learn effectively. Using the video capabilities made possible by technology, we can stimulate the motivation to look presentable, participate in virtual classroom discussions and absorb the material prepared by the teachers. In this sense technological capabilities will affect both intrinsic motivation (working towards personal reward) and extrinsic motivation (working towards earning a reward that is given to us).

Participation

Participation is directly linked to students’ success in class. Computer-based instruction creates some increased demands for students to participate in learning. Each student must navigate their own technology, learning materials and generally follow along with the class. Some students find it more difficult to participate online when they cannot see each other face-to-face, and are left starring at confusing slides and listening to an audio lecture. Statistically students who raise their hands to ask and answer questions will achieve a better grade than those who do not. Participation also builds valuable public speaking skills that will be useful beyond the classroom. In a virtual environment, when students can’t see each other or their teachers, there can be a lack of attention to the subject matter and one another. But when students can visualise others’ facial expressions, gestures and physically watch each other speak, the discussions will thrive like they would in a traditional classroom setting.

Attendance

Designing online courses always involves finding effective methods for measuring students’ attendance. Does simply logging into an online course count as “attending” the class? The short answer is no. There needs to be an indication of the student actively participating in some aspects of the class. Educators can address this topic by implementing interactive modules and assignments during online class time, but perhaps the best way to monitor and document student attendance for distance education is to visually gather all students in one “space”. This way we can keep track and make sure all students have access to the necessary technology, are well-prepared for class, and have the opportunity to see their peers face-to-face on a regular basis. Additionally, online learning can make attending class easier in some cases, reducing absences that would be caused by factors like lack of transportation, mild illness or other unpredictable events.

Accountability

Without a teacher present in each student’s home, how do we make sure students are following the guidelines of academic integrity, which is already an issue in traditional classrooms? What measures can educators take to avoid plagiarism, ensure students are completing their work independently and applying their best effort to their work? Although it may be difficult to hold students accountable in these regards, visual participation and face-to-face communication can play a great role. We can encourage students to succeed and meet expectations by keeping them engaged and alert.

Student Engagement

Seeing each other virtually face-to-face creates one less degree of separation from each other. At a time when everyone is asked to keep their distance and stay apart, teachers can’t always engage their students using the techniques they did in the past. Teachers need to find new ways to keep their students interested and attentive without the possibility of physically being together. Video learning gives them the opportunity to assess each student’s mood and attitude and make sure each student is doing well physically and mentally. When it comes time for group activities, being virtually face-to-face is especially important for successful outcomes. There are many technological tools for collaborating on projects virtually that are compatible with video conference calls as students do work together to make sure no students are left behind.

Perception of Courses

The reality is that certain courses lend themselves better to online learning than others. Sometimes, students’ perception of their courses may change if they suddenly cannot experience the hands-on elements of a particular course. Especially in STEM, it is important to maintain the integrity of course material that may require hands-on activities such as labs, experiments and practical elements of the course. While we can’t replicate the traditional environment in these cases during this public health crisis, the virtual world has many tools and resources for conveying these activities through virtual face-to-face communication. In courses more centred around the Arts, online learning creates some challenges as well. Forum-style discussions about abstract concepts made possible by large classrooms will be difficult to maintain and moderate. Visual elements of online education will be able to greatly improve these discussions. All in all, it is important for students to select their courses based on their educational needs and not based on the limitations to education brought on by COVID-19.

Learning Outcomes

Some experts predict that COVID-19 will cause a rise in drop-out rates, especially in the most vulnerable students. After all, students in every level of education did not predict that a global emergency would change the nature of their learning environment in almost every way possible. Some students who were having trouble with subject matter—a student who is not strong at math, for example—may decide to give up on their education and be unable to navigate course materials on their own. For other students their grades may see a decline as they adjust to the increased responsibilities of learning in quarantine. Using face-to-face communication educators can “check in” with each student and provide valuable support and advice to keep them motivated. They can also help students to adjust their expectations for learning outcomes until the pandemic is behind us, and guide them to the best use of their time and efforts. Using technology we can assess students’ existing expectations and create innovative ways to accommodate their learning needs without compromising the quality of education.

Providing Feedback

Feedback and comments are some of the most important factors in the evolution of students’ knowledge. Students benefit by understanding why their grade may be lower than, higher than, or on par with their expectations. Providing this feedback digitally can be challenging and seem impersonable at times, but incorporating visual face-to-face communication to this process makes students feel like they are an important part of the classroom community. Digital tools allow teachers to break down assignments into individual parts for thorough grading. Students can also self-evaluate each other’s working using video chat to come up with their own ideas and solutions. The ability to collaborate while being in different locations has many benefits for the process of learning.

Student Demographics

It’s no secret that some generations and more technologically savvy than others. The fundamental principle behind online education is access to technology and the ability to use it effectively. In developed countries like ours over 90% of the population has access to the internet, while in some other places in the world that figure can be below 20%, making online learning nearly impossible. For those of us here, the internet allows for effective face-to-face communication the majority of the time, but that can still make technology difficult to navigate. Some younger students definitely benefit from face-to-face contact with other students and teachers, ensuring they continue paying attention and don’t become too easily distracted. For older students the benefits of video communication can make complex concepts easier to grasp and understand, and asking difficult questions becomes a little easier.

Sense of Community

A social presence in schools is an important part of students’ experience, and often leads to professional and personal friendships that can last a lifetime. So how do we foster a sense of community and build these relationships when students can’t interact together outside, during a lunch break, or after school activities? When students are isolated at home away from all friends, teachers, mentors and other important figures, it can be difficult to commit time to doing assignments, quizzes or other school related work. We would encourage all students to get together virtually and keep in touch during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are so many different options for video chatting in groups outside of the virtual classroom that include games, trivia, creative activities and many more. Inside the virtual classroom, face-to-face communication will foster a stronger community and students’ relationships with their peers and teachers.

The Future of Education

What happens when everything goes back to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic? While many people believe that the sudden transition to online learning is hindering the education sector, others are optimistic that in the future we will have a hybrid learning environment that integrates the benefits, ease of access and convenience of being able to learn from any location. If we continue to design an effective online learning environment and take advantage of online tools, the quality of our education may some exciting improvements. The generation of students and teachers who experienced the transition to complete online learning in quarantine can be the pioneers of these new models of education.

In closing, it is important to keep in mind how the “Face-to-Face factor” effects all the elements in the constantly-changing realm of online education. Personal interaction will drive and motivate students to continue striving towards their best educational outcomes. Participation will remain strong if students can interact both visually and orally online. Attendance is bound to be improved if students are required to physically prepare for and be present for class. Student engagement in course material with visual elements will be much more positive when video technology is incorporated into the plans. Although some courses may have to adjust practical elements of their education technology will make it easier in other ways to learn the hands-on elements of a class. Learning outcomes—a big concern for the education sector during these uncertain times—will remain at a high quality and no vulnerable students will be left behind. Using face-to-face interactions we can continue to maintain a sense of community while being physically distant until it safe to gather together again. The visual and face-to-face factor behind online education may be the key to the successful virtual classroom.

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