As we log into Zoom, we can see the rest of the students who have logged in, only about half of the actual class. Some students are sitting in front of bookshelves; others have set drawings or photos of places around the world as their backgrounds. In a large meeting, many students have their cameras turned off and are muted to allow smoother connection, with only their names visible to indicate their presence. Instead of using projectors and whiteboards, teachers share their screens or post scanned images of problem solutions. This is the new learning style that students in the Palo Alto Unified School District, and around the country, have had to adjust to due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the year comes to an end, students are finishing coursework online, meeting with teachers through Zoom and potentially missing out on some of the content from their classes. Advanced Placement tests and the topics that will be covered on them have been redesigned by the College Board, meaning students may not be learning all of the content usually taught in these classes. Some are also concerned about the security of an oft-used video conferencing tool, Zoom, after recordings of meetings were leaked and it was discovered that people can guess random meeting IDs and enter unsecured videos.
Students are attending lessons over Zoom or watching pre-recorded lectures, while teachers host office hours over Zoom to answer questions — a replacement to the tutorial period that students traditionally had twice a week. A few have also created discussion boards on Schoology for students to post and respond to each others’ questions. However, some teachers are providing minimal support for students, causing increased stress during this uncertain time.
One student has said that they are no longer in contact with about half of their teachers, and many of them are not giving feedback on submitted assignments. Another teacher forgot a Zoom meeting that she had set up. Students in that class waited for her to join, making them feel that their time was not being used effectively.
“I think classes that aren’t preparing their students for AP exams should be more conscious about their workload, especially if their students are taking three or four tests at a time,” a Palo Alto High School senior said.
Other students, however, have had no Zoom calls or lessons whatsoever. Some teachers are only posting their own pre-recorded lectures to watch at any time, posting online videos made by other teachers, or solely creating assignments for students to work through. This approach has made them feel unprepared for the future, and feel like they are not receiving learning support from their teachers.
“I think the biggest issue is with my AP classes because my teachers have created lessons meant to prepare us for the test, but now they’re just linking Khan Academy lessons which just barely teach me the material and definitely aren’t designed to prepare for the AP,” another Paly senior said.
“We were in the middle of oil painting and we had to stop that. Now we’re doing Photoshop stuff. It’s a different experience, but it’s still just as valuable.”
— Zander Leong, junior
Some of Paly’s classes that involve hands-on learning, like art courses and Early Childhood Development have been hit particularly hard by the switch to distance learning. Sophie Pardehpoosh, a sophomore in Early Childhood Development, has found that the learning style in that class has changed significantly during school closure.
“That’s really hard because the whole point of the class is that you’re with preschoolers all the time,” Pardehpoosh said. “That’s definitely a lot harder because two days a week we’d go to the preschool during school. But now obviously we’re not able to do that so we’re definitely learning in a very different way and not getting that hands on [experience].”
Some classes have also drastically changed their curriculum to cope with distance learning. Zander Leong, a junior taking an art class at Paly, said that the class had to switch the units to make sure the class was teaching something that students could do at home. However, he did not see this as a negative experience.
“We were in the middle of oil painting and we had to stop that,” Leong said. “Now we’re doing Photoshop stuff. It’s a different experience, but it’s still just as valuable.”
Many students have not had these positive experiences with their online classes, but understand that this period is a difficult time for everyone to adjust to.
“ I think my teachers are great and they try so hard to maintain the level of education during the school year despite not being able to congregate,” a Paly senior said. “And even though we can’t talk in person they’re doing their best to keep us updated on AP tests and scheduling zooms for lessons or just Q&A sessions.”
Teachers for AP classes have to rearrange their curricula to cater to the new, shortened tests. Other teachers are taking advantage of this time to assign special projects or allow students to have more choice over how they learn.
However, teachers that AP classes have been easier to adjust to, since they have specific goals that have to be met in a certain time frame.
“In many ways, my AP Econ is so easy, because there’s this external incentive that kids are chasing down, so they are hungry to get information,” Eric Bloom, a Paly social studies teacher, said.
But teachers also want students to remember that they have to make a difficult change as well. Daniel Nguyen, a Paly math teacher, emphasized that he is able to engage with students so much because he had already incorporated technology into his lectures before. Other teachers, however, do not have this advantage, and have had to make large adjustments to their teaching plans as well.
“It’s not easy, like I was able to generally do a good, smooth transition but technology can be hard to adapt,” Nguyen said. “Especially to adapt when we don’t have a collegial environment where teachers can just run into each other and say ‘How do you do this or how do you do that?’ That lack of organic health makes it hard to develop as a professional.”
It is also important for teachers to understand that students may be having a difficult time adjusting, according to Nguyen. He has designed his online lessons and assignments to focus on participation and completion rather than correctness, to reduce students’ stress around them.
“I think it’s just worth the understanding that students aren’t absolutely required to learn the material this year, at least from my classes, so making sure that that fact is factored in to the determination of what’s required and not required, I think, help students be less stressed about what they have to do,” Nguyen said.
Another difficulty teachers are facing is that, for many of them, this is not the kind of work they saw themselves doing when they became teachers.
“I did not become a high school teacher so I could spend my day in front of a computer,” Bloom said. “I actually chose not to spend my day in front of a computer, and to have this turned around… It’s funny.”
As companies requested their employees to work remotely, schools sent their students home, and the government passed shelter-in-place orders, Zoom became the default platform for virtual conferences and lectures because it had the essential features needed for such meetings. Most teachers have been using Zoom to hold meetings with students, Q&A sessions or class lectures. Universities across the United States are also using this platform, both for their own classes and for information sessions for high schoolers.
“It’s super helpful to stay in contact with my teachers, they’ve been scheduling Zoom meetings almost every week to fill in material we’re missing out on,” Paly senior Ashley Xu said.
However, not everyone agrees with the widespread adoption of the technology. Zoom has faced backlash for misleading users with their security statements. It claimed to have end-to-end encryption, but used a subpar key rather than what the company said it was using. In addition, Zoom-bombing has become a common occurrence, where people choose a random Meeting ID and join someone else’s meeting without having been invited. As a result, schools have been encouraged to use passwords or waiting rooms for their meetings, and some organizations and institutions have prohibited their employees’ use of Zoom, shifting to other video-conferencing platforms such as Skype or Google Meet. While Zoom has been working to release updates that ensure stronger security, the platform has already lost the trust of many.
PAUSD Superintendent Don Austin has also been hosting weekly Zoom meetings for the community to attend, but the links do not always work, making the conversational element limited. Austin also said that he is unable to take questions through Zoom during the meetings, which has increased frustration.
Both teachers and students have been forced to come up with innovative new ways to learn, during the school closure. Though they come in a time that is difficult for everyone, the Paly community can take some of these new ideas and incorporate them into future courses.
In an increasingly technological world, the number of teachers who have difficulty using the school’s online learning functions is surprising. A Paly senior said that increased training in technology would solve some of the issues with distance learning, and provide better footing for the future.
“Though the vast majority of my teachers are organized and helpful, one of my teachers… seems to be struggling with the shift toward online learning,” the senior said. “I think that if our teachers were better equipped with Zoom and Schoology, problems such as missing lectures and giving assignments on a reasonable basis could be resolved.”
Teachers have also said that this time has taught the school community the importance of communication. According to Bloom, this has been one of the difficulties both teachers and students are facing while trying to work online.
“So the takeaway is the importance of that one on one communication, or the face to face communication,” Bloom said. “And the idea that we all have these, you know, complicated lives … It has given me a little bit more empathy I would hope.”
Another major change that has impacted distance learning is the replacement of letter grades to credit/no-credit grading for the second semester in all PAUSD secondary schools; this transition was adopted by many other schools in the country as well. The reasoning was that this would ease the academic burden on students, most of whom are under added stress while following shelter-in-place, as well as make it more simple for teachers to teach and assess student work remotely. In response, many teachers have created a document outlining their standards for earning credit in the second semester. Additionally, several colleges have stated that a school’s implementation of a credit/no-credit system would not influence the admission decisions of individuals.
However, many are opposed to the new credit no-credit grading system as they feel it neglects students’ efforts in the third quarter, or may cause students to be less motivated to continue their education at home. A petition calling for the Mountain View Los Altos High School District to reverse the credit/no-credit decision and make 4th quarter grades optional was created, and has accumulated almost 1,500 signatures. Though several universities have stated that a credit/no-credit system would not influence the admission decisions of individuals, the petition expressed concerns regarding the impact on a students’ academic presentations to colleges.
“I hope students realize they’re fully capable of at least getting some information on their own.”
— Daniel Nguyen, Paly math teacher
Looking toward the coming months, one matter to explore is the implementation of online learning in the fall or after schools reopen. Administrators may have to consider the possibility of making distance learning an equally valid alternative to being physically present on a school campus, allowing students to learn remotely if they wish.
One thing that Nguyen says students can take away from this period is that they have the ability to learn on their own and motivate themselves.
“It’s hard when you don’t have to come in to still have a motivation to learn, but I hope students realize they’re fully capable of at least getting some information on their own,” Nguyen said. “And the more of an independent learner can be, the more successful they can be.”