Taking the Distance Out of Distance Learning: The Value of Face-to-Face Contact

As teachers, one of the best things about our jobs is the connection we make with our students. That connection is the inevitable marriage of good intentions and spending eight hours a day in a shared space. However, distance learning – whereby students and teachers do not share the same physical space but rather communicate online – is a real and momentous educational trend. But many still wonder: Is it possible for teachers to connect with students when they are miles apart? Can teachers feel the energy in the classroom or identify students who need help? Here at BGL, it’s not only possible… it’s happening.

The following is an account from BGL’s Teacher, Travis:

Being a teacher with BGL is an experience unlike any other I’ve had as an educator. From our offices in downtown Los Angeles, I’m able to teach a class of 42 Taiwanese sixth graders at Tsai Hsing School in Taipei. And technology allows us to shrink the distance between us. From California, I’m able to control multiple video screens in the students’ classroom; I can call students’ individual iPads for one-on-one instruction; and online platforms allow Tsai Hsing and BGL to work seamlessly from different continents.

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From the students perspective: working while a distance learning teacher is on the screen.

Before I began teaching for BGL, I spent five years in both high school and K-5 classrooms. I wasn’t sure if my traditional classrooms skills would translate to this online teaching world. But after about six weeks, I realized, “Wow, this feels like regular teaching! It’s like I’m in the room with them.” The individual iPad conferencing allowed me to connect with my students despite the distance. Just last week, I learned Thalia loves Taylor Swift (she sang a few lines for me during one of our conferences) and I argued with Yoli whose favorite NBA team is the Lakers (I am a Bulls fan for life).

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Students collaboratively working on an iMovie video

Recently, BGL sent me to Taipei for one week to visit the school and meet my students (as they do with all their distance teachers). My students freaked out when they learned I was coming to visit. I anxiously stood outside their classroom door, waiting for them to come out and see me for the first time. And the looks on their faces? I will have that mental picture for the rest of my life. At first, they looked confused. Then, when they realized it was me, they all screamed and ran up hugging me and giving high fives.

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My students rehearsing a video diary of Paris and Helen of Troy.

By sending me to Taipei to teach my students in person, BGL made the learning experience – for both student and teacher – even stronger. Inside the classroom, students were more deeply engaged and the lessons felt more dynamic. Outside the classroom, I was able to connect with the students even further: I would play with them during breaks, sit with them during assemblies, and help them after school to prepare for English language competitions in Taipei. (Many of them actually took home first place!) Being face-to-face, the students were able to really feel that I cared about them. And the feeling was clearly mutual.

National Teacher Day happened to fall during my week in Taiwan. Now, if you ask American students, teachers or administrators when Teacher Appreciation Day is, they probably won’t know. I admit that I didn’t know. But in Taipei, National Teacher Day is known by everyone. It is celebrated on Confucius’ birthday, as he is considered their greatest teacher. Tsai Hsing had an assembly to celebrate. For each class, a student wrote something special about their teacher, read it to the school and presented each teacher with a flower. After each teacher came up, students would yell out, “我們愛你的老師” (“We love you teacher”). Eason, a student of mine, shared how our class felt about me. It was sweet and from the heart.

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A final photograph.

Since returning from Taiwan and stepping back in front of the camera, every lesson has been filled with the same energy I felt when I was in Taipei. My students and I look at each other differently. I see how much they look up to teachers, respect what they do and crave to learn from them. And they see how much I care about them, and how goofy I can really be!

Any reservations I had about the effectiveness of distance learning have vanished. My students are deeply engaged with what they are learning. They have fun, work wonderfully together, are responsive to my expectations and treat my class just like their traditional classes. I had felt this connection to them before I visited Taipei, but seeing my students in person solidified that feeling. Now, I truly do feel like I am in the classroom with them despite the 6,700 miles between us.

 

One comment

  1. Mary Fleischauer · November 19, 2014

    Well written Travis, I’m proud of you like you were my son. Teach on!

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