Does Voluntary Zoom-ing Play a Role in the Schools of the Future?
Like any new invention or technology used in school, Zoom has enormous benefits, but also has unanticipated downsides. It enables students to stay current in their courses from anywhere in the globe, avoiding disruptions and missed classes. At the same time, both teacher instruction and student learning face challenges when done over Zoom, where students are often preoccupied by other apps on their phones and computers and distracted by whatever else may be going on in the location they are Zooming from. There are also social costs, mental health costs, and fewer serendipitous hallway student/teacher interactions when students learn remotely.
In a year of unprecedented disruptions and major health justifications for Zooming, this medium proved to be a necessity, outweighing the costs to learning. But what about in future years when Zooming is voluntary and optional? Where do we distinguish between opportunities to employ Zoom as a vital technology, or to discourage its use as a reinforcer for unhealthy behavior?
Consider the following range of Zoom scenarios, from the most necessary to the most detrimental:
- A student who is auto-immune compromised learning over Zoom to remain safe during a pandemic.
- A student who returned home after travel to a family Bar Mitzvah and must quarantine for a week until state travel guidelines enable the student to return to school.
- A student who is quarantining at home in advance of traveling to visit an elderly great-grandparent, who does not want to miss school while preparing for the trip.
- A student attending a family wedding in Florida who doesn’t wish to miss class, and so Zooms into the classroom each morning on the days before and after the wedding.
- A student whose family found more affordable airline tickets to leave for winter break a few days early, and so finishes the fall semester from vacation with two days of school on Zoom.
- A student with an orthodontist appointment at 11am who cannot get a ride from school to the appointment, who attends two morning classes on Zoom before the appointment and from the car on the way to the appointment.
- A student who leaves school early with siblings at 2pm dismissal because the family can’t find a ride to bring the student home at 6pm dismissal, who finishes the day on Zoom.
- A student who sleeps late and misses the bus and so just decides to Zoom for the day.
- A student with three free periods in the middle of the day, so goes home to play video games and then finishes his last two classes on Zoom.
- A student who has a job as a cashier in a store or restaurant who Zooms into class while working behind the counter.
You can imagine the challenge facing school educators as you read the list from one end to the other, struggling about where to draw the line as to whether the student described should be encouraged, permitted, tolerated, or forbidden to join school by Zoom. On the one hand, no one would ever want to deprive a child from an opportunity to learn. But on the other hand, part of being a positive force in the life of young people includes also dissuading them from behaviors that might appear to the teenager (or middle schooler) as positive but which we know are not to their own benefit. Some circumstances certainly warrant Zoom, while others do not.
In our internal conversations about elective Zooming, we have turned to three separate questions which help guide us in determining which forms of elective Zooming should be part of our future plans and which should not.
1) In the short term, will Zooming increase this student’s learning and growth?
Not surprisingly, the answer to this question is usually yes. A student almost always will learn and grow more by participating in class remotely, as opposed to not participating at all. But sometimes, the answer is no, as the stress of feeling obligated to attend a full day of classes over Zoom can be too significant to juggle in the context of the student’s other personal obligations.
2) In the long term, did offering Zoom serve as a driver of the justification or validation for the student to miss in-person class in the first place.
Schools should frame this question not as a binary one (should the student attend on Zoom or not attend at all), but as a trilateral one. If attending over Zoom was not an option, would the student attend in person or not attend at all? Does the very option of Zoom encourage students to pursue an option they don’t realize is inferior, because they don’t realize the costs of learning remotely? This question is likely answered differently for each student’s own unique learning profile, and their stage of growth and development as a learner.
3) How much value-add is provided for the Zooming student, and at what cost to the rest of the class?
Zooming places greater stress on the teacher’s ability to manage the classroom and engage all students in the lesson, especially when unannounced. We know that students focus and attend to instruction better when in person, and educators have a full gamut of instructional and didactic techniques and strategies that cannot be used on Zoom, such as managing by walking around, use of manipulatives, coordination of whiteboard/smartboard, and learning cues scattered around a classroom. Does the marginal added value to the student making it to one extra class while on route to the orthodontist justify the distraction to teachers and students? A possible compromise for next year may involve Zooming students “listening in” on Zoom without asking questions and with their cameras off to minimize distractions to other students and with a smaller burden on the teacher, instead of being an active presence in the classroom.
Many are asking which innovations of the COVID pandemic are here to stay, and Zoom schooling appears to be one of them. We expect that teachers or students who might have broken legs or arms or who are home recovering from surgery will use this technology to continue learning in circumstances when in the past there would be little learning done. However, Jewish educators must give guidance to students, parents, and communities to determine when the use of this technology is beneficial and when it merely provides the illusion of achieving its goals.
Yaakov Jaffe serves as the Rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah and as the Dean of Judaic Studies at Maimonides School, both in Brookline, Mass. Rabbi Dr. Jaffe received his ordination and doctorate from Yeshiva University, where he holds graduate degrees in Bible, Jewish History, and Jewish Education.