With the global pandemic that started in 2020, practices around teaching and learning were changed forever. Many schools were forced to pivot to online education very quickly in early 2020, and online education prevailed for many schools throughout the pandemic. While some schools reopened fully, others stayed in a hybrid or fully online stance for much of the pandemic. This switch to a different modality was very quick, and caught many educators, administrators, and their students off guard. While this was done out of necessity for the health and safety of communities, the impact of the COVID-19-style education period will be felt for some time to come. While the impact was felt in all sectors of education, the language classroom is one that is likely most vulnerable given the interactive nature of learning a language.
How Some Educators Adapted
Many educators very quickly moved from a face-to-face teaching format to an online one. Some of the teachers had exposure to online learning, whether in their own education experiences or from the use of learning management systems and digital learning resources, but a fully online format was not the general norm for everyone.
Schools, colleges, and universities were required to quickly learn to move from a fully face-to-face format to a digital/virtual one, seemingly overnight. This required administrators and educators to build up their technology infrastructures, resources, and skill sets. In many cases, some of the technology was already available, but the actual ability to scale up to fully online may not have been adequate. For example, streaming services and cloud services were not always at scale with what the demand would be for all courses to completely transition to online. This required schools to spend on developing or acquiring new tools/resources or investing in upgrading existing ones. This included increasing storage space for video resources, investing in closed captioning services and/or other adaptive technology tools, increasing tutoring or remedial resources for students.
Some students lacked sufficient resources for the transition including a lack of internet at home, limited technology for accessing courses, limited knowledge of effective use of technologies. While federal funds were made available for schools to help their students make the transition including funding for purchasing internet hot spots and computers/tablets, this was not immediately available as the funding took some time to work its way through Congress and into the hands of education institutions. Some school systems offered students the ability for access to school for wifi and internet connectivity, which allowed some students who were in need to be able to access the critical technologies for their schooling. However, this was not universally the case. As such, the classroom experience was not equal for all students.
The Learning Slide
With some students thriving in an online environment, others struggled. One interesting area for future focus is that of how the modified learning environment might impact language learning. The “learning slide”, most often used to refer to the period of time between academic years when students are on a summer break (“summer slide”), can also be used to refer to this period of time when learning shifted or was disrupted significantly for everyone.
Languages are often learned in a face-to-face format, which made the transition especially different for students and teachers who were not used to such a format. While some schools have offered some virtual learning opportunities for languages, a traditional asynchronous model is not the most common option for language learning. Therefore, the transition to an online format required significant rethinking of the classroom environment. The prevailing offering for language courses was typically a synchronous (live) class that mimicked the typical classroom environment. While this format may work for some, it is not necessarily a format that works for all.
Engagement in a course requires students to be able to engage in a learning format that meets their needs. While some students understand their own learning preferences, others might not or might also be too young to articulate them. Being an effective student, or an educator creating the best learning environment, requires understanding how we learn and what might not work for us.
While language learning “muscles” can likely bounce back fairly quickly, the time that may have been lost during the pandemic can be difficult to make up for some. This might require reassessing students more regularly to ensure that they are on track with learning targets, or more closely monitoring students’ progression in courses and offering micro-adjustments to lessons.
Prospects for the Future
While the switch to online or hybrid learning was swift during the early days of COVID, there is a lot to be learned from the experience. As an example, research is emerging about the impact of COVID and the new learning environments on students (c.f. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0738059320304855; https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED606496.pdf). This research will lead to a breadth of knowledge about both what occurred during the pandemic, but also innovations that occurred.
The learning environment, like nearly everything in society, is likely changed forever. While the pandemic is still underway as of late 2021, many institutions are increasing their online formats (synchronous, asynchronous, hybrid, etc.) over what was traditionally offered. This is a trend that many schools are likely to continue to some degree. Hand-in-hand with virtual learning, the leveraging of learning management systems and other digital resources will likely also continue to grow over time.
Areas for Consideration for Educators
Some questions can guide the conversations moving forward:
- What worked well and what did not for language education/education generally as a result of the modified learning formats?
- Who benefited and who lost the most during the modified learning formats?
- What are some innovations that occurred and what is still being developed?
- How will a virtual learning environment contribute to improving education moving forward? In particular, what occurred in the language learning environment during this period that was innovative?
- How might language standards factor into ensuring basic quality and/or minimal learning requirements?
Please share how education changed for you/your institution during the pandemic.