Remote learning: boon or necessary evil? Two Quebec experts give tips on making it work

Just because many Quebec families are fighting for the right to do online schooling doesn’t mean they all like it.

Remote classes are a touchy topic in a few ways. For some families, they’re a good solution, a welcome chance to steer clear of the risks associated with in-person classes during COVID-19.

But others consider them a necessary evil that makes learning a challenge.

“Don’t be too quick to blame the technology,” says a McGill University professor.

After all, a lecture that’s boring online would have been just as mind-numbing in the lecture hall, says Adam Dube, who researches how educational technology can add to and even strengthen the learning process.

Dube says not all technologies are created equal and that choosing the best software from among hundreds of options is one key to making it interesting.

“One of the things we should be looking for is technology that facilitates discussions and interactions among students and their teacher,” the professor said, because one of the biggest issues with remote learning is that students feel removed and isolated from others.

And not all of that is about the technology, either. Dube said that even a regular ol’ Zoom class can become a multi-dimensional tool if the teacher uses it to organize breakout sessions where students can engage in small groups.

There’s also no need to shy away from complicated subjects.

“For example, in one of the classes I’m running this term, we have students reading very complex research papers, but they’re doing it using an online platform where they all read the exact same document together,” he said.

“They can comment on the document together, see each other’s comments, highlight information, ask each other questions. This is something students wouldn’t do in a classroom typically, so they actually get more interaction around complex ideas.”

Dube also points to programs and apps that allow students to play games that help them apply and test their knowledge “instead of a worksheet.”

But there’s a downside to too much high-tech learning, especially for younger kids.

“One of the things we do know is that the older the student, the more effective it can be,” Dube said.

“Young students…say, younger than the age of ten, have more difficulty directing their own learning, they require more guidance from their teachers, they require more interaction and activities.”

And for a system that takes some strategizing and ingenuity to use well, another problem is the lack of training among teachers. As an advisor, Dube hears some are having a hard time making the transition to teaching online.

Then there are students, who are also all unique in how they dive into a new virtual universe.

Some students can feel a sense of anxiety about it, according to Tina Montreuil, Dube’s colleague in the Educational and Counselling Psychology Department at McGill.

“We have to still remember that humans are still relational beings,” she said. 

“Being in the digital era is a really great thing, but we just can’t forget how critical it is to still work on emotional regulation, on the relational aspect.”

Montreuil said she is working with partners in Quebec’s Education Ministry to ensure social support for students of all ages to promote optimal learning.

She said it's a reminder that a student's individual approach to learning inside a real classroom still applies, even when the learning moves online. 

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