Reflections on Distance Learning

Like other schools around the world, GDS has had to modify its practices to adapt to distance learning. Students, faculty and parents have had to stay flexible and calm to deal with the unprecedented shift to online education during a pandemic.

“I think GDS is doing a good job in the implementation of distance learning,” sophomore Noah Freedman said. “It was smart that they took their time coming to decisions. I thought all of my teachers made it clear that they were there to help us and that we could reach out any time if we needed help.”

But Freedman also expressed that he found some of the work quite tedious and thought it has been challenging to stay focused during asynchronous learning without the lectures and interactive activities that usually keep him engaged in school.

For some, it is hard to stay motivated because of the lack of separation between personal and school life. With everything occurring from home, students said that it can be difficult to organize academic activity, relaxation time and sleep.

Even faculty have struggled with the new school model.

“Time has been moving in strange ways,” English teacher Michael Manson said. “It seems like we’ve been doing this forever, but it also seems like we just started yesterday.” 

He also noted,  “Work Michael and home Michael collide in different ways.” Typically, when he leaves for school, he can block out his personal life and focus in his “work zone mode” on teaching and grading. But when home and work become intertwined in the same location, it can be harder to know when to switch gears.

On the other hand, some students have appreciated the ability to create their own routine to deal with their unique circumstances. Compared to regular school, the freedom of distance learning allows students to customize their schedule to their learning preferences to manage and handle their workload.

Freedman said, “None of my work has really been that time-constrained. You could get a good night sleep, wake up and do your work later in the day or whenever suited you best.”

However, some students have found it more helpful to stick to old routines. Senior Emily Axelrod said that some of her friends have stuck to a regular school schedule and worked from 8:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. 

“It can definitely be challenging to find the motivation to do a lot of work. You don’t have to turn it in—there’s nothing really holding you accountable for it,” Axelrod said.

Under the new high credit/credit/incomplete grading model that GDS has adopted for the fourth quarter, administrators and teachers are relying on students’ drive to push themselves and learn even when there is not the same reward of a good grade as usual. 

High School Principal Katie Gibson wrote in an email that students’ participation in  minimester—the three day, non-graded experiential learning experience in February—exemplifies the drive of GDS students.

Gibson wrote that “students have spoken about the power of being given the opportunity to learn for the sake of learning.” 

GDS moved to the credit/incomplete grading model after careful consideration. In the weeks before the school’s shift, there had been growing student support for some sort of pass/fail approach. Out of 318 GDS high school students who participated in a poll sent out by senior Ben Howell, 89.2 percent supported a pass/fail grading system for the fourth quarter. 

“I think the poll was beneficial in the sense that it started a widespread conversation amongst the community,” Howell said. “It showed that most people were on the same page with how to move forward in this challenging and confusing time.”

Additionally, GDS used resources from Crescendo Education that recommended pass/fail based on research that says academic performance is negatively impacted by stress and that it would more likely reflect “racial, economic and resource differences.”

“To assign grades right now, with the amount of uncertainties and anxieties, felt like a lot,” Gibson said.

With the range of situations of how families have to deal with the crisis, the administration decided it would be unfair to add to the current stress with the anxiety of normal grades; however, in the recent weeks, the administration changed the distance learning grading system, which will clarify any confusion about the implementation. Students will only be able to improve upon their third quarter grades through earning high credit (95%) or credit (82%). This measure allows students to have the ability to improve but not have to deal with the same level of stress they might experience during regular school.

In his past experience as an administrator, teacher and student, Michael Manson has had previous experience with pass/fail courses. 

“I appreciate how careful the administration has been thinking about these issues,” Manson said. “I’ve been surprised with how transparent it has been. Sometimes you meet administrators who shoot from the hip and make it up as you go along, and that’s not the style we have here at all. A lot of institutions tend to think that teachers are employees that should do as they are told. This is an administration that thinks that faculty, students and staff have feedback they need to listen to before making decisions.”

In such dire circumstances, GDS has transitioned its physical, in-person community to an online one. Through distance learning, GDS is trying to bring a sense of normalcy to its community members for engaging in learning during such an unusual time.

Some suggestions GDS has offered its community include limiting screen time when possible, exercising regularly and getting outside.

“We’re dealing with an emergency crisis being forced into distance learning, not able to leave our homes, stressed out about our health and families and not being able to see others,” Gibson said. “The idea of engaging with school is not just that distance learning is hard, but the context of our life is hard.”