Distance learning bridges the gap

Where there’s a will, and wiFi, there’s a way.

As schools and all but essential Woodstock-and-surrounding area businesses shutter in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus, locals are turning to distance learning via various internet platforms. For many users, it’s a first, but they’re catching on fast. Within two weeks of the World Health Organization declaring the virus a pandemic, screens began lighting up with familiar faces and voices beaming into quarantined rooms. Determined, sometimes desperate pupils and instructors now embrace this very 21st century experience, often with mixed emotions. Nevertheless, while classes via Zoom, Skype, Facetime, Facebook Live or other means were once an ancillary aspect of education, these and other mediums are quite suddenly the norm.

Selena Reynolds of Woodstock/Saugerties Shakti Yoga, is mostly relieved and energized after teaching two classes via Facebook Live. At 25 attendees, her first was about twice the size of her usual in-person classes. “It’s so incredibly valuable to see people’s faces,” she says. “As a mother of three, I have been so vehemently opposed to socialization and education becoming screen mediated. And now my kids are saying, ‘See? We’ve been telling you this all along!’”

Reynolds was apprehensive about making the leap, but watching worldwide yoga classes switching over inspired her. “It took me a few days to get my head around it,” she says. “I love having that captive audience all in a room. And it’s weird to translate that to video. But not being able to teach classes at all felt like such a loss. I really wanted to help folks feel less isolated. And if you have a smartphone and 6 feet of space, it’s not hard.”

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Reynolds has already developed protocols for distance learning yoga. “I respond to all the comments,” she says.  “And I don’t watch the news before class.”

Kingstonian Sari Botton, essays editor at Longreads, MFA instructor at Longfellow, MA-based Bay Path University, and writing teacher at New York City-based multi-platform Catapult, has actually been distance instructing for a year. “Last year, a teacher dropped out of a Catapult mentorship lab and they asked me to fill in,” she says. “I was terrified. I thought there’d be a steep learning curve, but there wasn’t.” Even before the pandemic, Bay Path and Botton had already prepared an upcoming online event with author Cheryl Strayed. They use their own interface.

“As a two-time MFA dropout [due to time and money strictures], I understand the value,” Botton says. “It’s been freeing for me, because I don’t need to drive to Long Meadow, or to New York City. I’ve developed skills lots of adjuncts and teachers are needing to do a crash course in now.”

Botton is certain distance learning is the wave of the future, even after the coronavirus has run its course. “This is revealing cracks that were already in the foundation of education,” she says. “Kids are graduating with huge debt, and this is so much cheaper, and effective.”

Whereas she once commuted, Arkville-based performer and piano/voice teacher Kimberly Hawkey now uses Google Duo to teach students enrolled in Westchester-based school Music in Chappaqua. “I’d been wanting to try it for a while,” she says. “I wanted to have this option for income that’s flexible for both my busy students and me. Like if I’m away for a week performing, I can still teach. I was eager to try it.”

So were her students. “They’re already familiar with screens,” she says. “That’s how they communicate with their friends.” And while she initially thought parents of younger students might hover in the background, they did not. She saw little of them, or none of them at all.

Hawkey definitely prefers the traditional style she’s honed in a decade of teaching. “It’s beneficial to be in the room and be collaborative,” she notes. “And especially with singing, it can be harder to hear nuances online.” But she’s also noticed some surprising advantages of distance learning, beyond the convenience: “Because I can’t accompany my voice students [due to slight time-lag in the interface], I watch them, and I notice things I wouldn’t catch if I was playing piano: posture issues, physical tension.” For additional connection, she follows up with an email. Hawkey has also joined a 2000+ member Facebook group for online music teachers, where discussions range from which microphones and cameras are best, to online teaching technique tips.

Eliza Siegel, Onteora Class of 2016, is completing her Barnard senior year at home in Shokan. She’s finishing up her BA in American Studies with a concentration in Media and Pop Culture by taking three classes online: a lit class, a history class, and an American Studies class. Barnard employs the Canvas platform.

“I wasn’t looking forward to it,” Siegel says. “It’s much harder for me to focus when I’m not in a room with people engaging with me.” She’d also had a negative experience with online classes while at Onteora. “I wanted to take AP Psychology, and Onteora didn’t have it, so I found an online course. It was all reading, self-directed, all through a portal. No engagement with a teacher. I dropped it.”

Distance learning technology has significantly improved, however, and while she would still much, much rather be back on the Barnard campus, Siegel is adjusting. The classes use different templates: American Studies and History classes are audio-only lectures, the video turned off. (One teacher likens it to “speaking into the void.”) These use a chat box for questions. The Lit course, however, only has 5 students, and uses both audio and video. The first class, Siegel noticed a paradoxically intimate aspect of the format.

“Everyone was in their bed,” she says. “Including me. You could see their posters on the walls. It was funny, and kind of sweet.”