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Remote Teaching: Challenges & Opportunities

by Jen

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With a forced shift to the remote classroom, teachers have had to confront challenges and grab opportunities in the remote learning space.

The remote classroom makes education practically universally available, contributing to the vision of accessible education for everyone. That said, it’s the teacher in this environment who is primarily responsible for the success of the remote classroom, a fact that comes with new challenges and opportunities not typically otherwise associated with the traditional classroom. This also means that many teachers aren’t equipped with the right tools, having studied to become a teacher in a traditional school environment.

What is Remote Teaching?


Remote teaching defines the remote classroom from the perspective of the teacher. The concept existed long before COVID-19 meant anything to anyone. It was especially popular for higher education. In its infancy, before the digital revolution, it was known as correspondence courses, quickly developing into a method of bringing knowledge (and degrees) to people who couldn’t attend a university or trading school. In 2020, all types of schools were forced to find a way to teach students, big and small, while limiting school attendance as much as possible. They had to deliver lessons, conduct assessments, and communicate with their students through software and technology—something they hadn’t been taught and had to find suitable solutions for quickly.

What Are Some Challenges That Come With Remote Teaching?


Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels.

Teachers already faced many challenges in the traditional classroom environment. Some of these actually fell away with the remote classroom. Others were exacerbated by this new environment. And of course, new challenges arose that were specific to the remote learning experience.

Limitations on Human Connection


The traditional classroom has long since been a place for real human connection between the teacher and their students and the students amongst themselves. These bonds can form between teacher and students as a group as they engage with subject matter, or even one-to-one, as a teacher walks a student through challenging learning material or even personal issues taking place at home. In the traditional environment, proximity gave teachers and students an opportunity to connect, share, and bond.

Even though the remote environment is not devoid of similar opportunities, it does challenge the space for spontaneous one-on-one time, or addressing challenges or issues with students in a more private and personal way. Catching students’ attentions and picking up on various social cues is much more difficult through a camera lens and students may find it more difficult to approach their teachers after class for help. However, this doesn't mean that teachers can’t connect with their students; it simply means that teachers must be more attentive and receptive to their students’ needs, and make a point of scheduling one-on-one time with them. It’s a matter of adapting to a new situation and finding ways to meet student needs in it.

Muted Body Language


Remote communication between teachers and their students can be effective, but some finer points of communication, like body language, facial expressions, and micro expressions can easily be filtered out over video. Even though these elements of body language are not essential, they add richness to the learning experience by conveying tone, emotion, warmth, and caring.

Presence & Authority


Many teachers have felt challenged when it comes to asserting their authority in the remote classroom, citing that their physical presence and proximity to students alone helped convey gravitas, assert authority, and capture the attention of their students.

In the remote classroom environment, which can act as a great equalizer in many instances, it's common for the role of the teacher to get lost in the fray of all the other attendees. In turn, the teacher may feel that they’re losing control over the classroom as a whole. It's therefore important for the remote teacher to set clear rules for the online classroom and take the necessary steps to keep their students’ focus for the duration of the lesson.

Getting To Grips With Classroom Management Software


It takes years to become a teacher, and even though most teachers were using some kind of technology or software in the traditional classroom, the leap to a digital-only environment in a very short space of time and under suboptimal conditions has proven challenging to most.

Added to the urgency of the recent move to digital, teachers have had to not only educate themselves, but also their students on the classroom management software available to them. They also had to deal with the often socially and politically difficult issue of their students having access to all the hardware and software they needed for a smooth transition to the digital classroom.

Isolation From Peers


One of a teacher's most precious resources is other teachers. Teachers live their work in a way that no other profession does, and it's this lived experience that can provide a wealth of information and guidance to other teachers as they navigate the same challenges.

Working or teaching from home can be a serious impediment to teacher connectedness, as it's most often in the unplanned moments of a teacher's day that they can learn from a fellow teacher or take a nugget of wisdom with them along the way.

While this isolation can be overcome with video calls and conferencing, planned communication can take the spontaneity out of teacher-to-teacher communication and support.

Students Getting Left Behind


One of the most challenging and worrisome things about being a teacher is knowing or finding out that a student is falling behind in class, doesn't have access to basic resources, or has little to no support at home. This can be extremely emotionally taxing , but with close daily proximity to the student, a teacher can be a lifeline for a student when they need it most.

The remote classroom, however, takes away this physical proximity and daily in-person routine that can be a comfort and a critical support system for vulnerable students. More than the challenges facing students in the traditional classroom environment, the remote classroom offers up other challenges to vulnerable students:

  • Inadequate or no access to hardware, like a computer or laptop
  • Inadequate or no access to an internet connection
  • Exposure to a loud or uncomfortable environment not conducive to learning
  • Inadequate access to good nutrition
  • Sustained exposure to abusive family members
  • Pressure to become economically active.

Managing & Organizing Digital Teaching Resources


Teachers are often provided with large PDF documents containing all the educational resources they'll need for a year's worth of teaching. In the traditional clarroom setting, it was common practice to simply print the materials, photocopy them, and then distribute them among students. We don’t have to point out how wasteful and environmentally unfriendly or how tedious a task this was. The remote classroom has all but eliminated the need for paper. Technically, next to nothing needs to be printed in a school nowadays, as long as teachers and administrative staff have access to the right tools.

Having to deliver digital learning materials to students should be easy, but when large PDFs need to be split, merged, reoriented, and pages moved, deleted, or numbered, managing documents may seem like a proverbial nightmare for any teacher.

Unlike some of the other challenges associated with the remote classroom, this challenge is really a gift in disguise. Thanks to some useful and intuitive PDF and document management software out there, teachers can leverage online tools to organize their teaching materials and reproduce them in an appropriate and palatable way for their students. Even as we’ve returned to the traditional classroom setting (be it full-time or with a new hybrid teaching model in place), this type of digital document management has come to stay.

What Opportunities Come With Remote Teaching?


Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels.

Even though the move to a digital classroom was daunting for most teachers, some surprising benefits and opportunities came out of the remote teaching experience.

Improved Collaboration Among Students


Contrary to expectations, the remote classroom opened the doors to new opportunities for deeper collaboration among students. While the success of collaboration in the traditional classroom depended on student engagement , group dynamics, and individual contribution, the remote classroom helped to level the collaborative environment. A host of tools and platforms created a new level of engagement in students and encouraged their individual contributions.

Facilitation of Virtual Tutoring


After-school tutoring for students who need closer engagement with the teacher and material is far less logistically challenging in a virtual environment. In-person tutoring requires both the teacher and the student to be at a certain place at a certain time. For everyone involved, that would mean the need for more detailed time management, planning, and, in some cases, alternative transportation.

Virtual tutoring gives both the teacher and the student the freedom to connect without having to navigate the logistics of being in the same place at the same time. In turn, this makes education more flexible and more readily available, regardless of the distance between student and teacher.

Higher Participation from Quieter Students


Quieter or more introverted students have valuable insights to contribute to the classroom environment. In the traditional classroom, they often feel compelled to stay quiet, though. This means that the most vocal or extroverted students are the ones that stand out and steer classroom discussions. Ultimately, good ideas are unheard and the discussion can not reach its full potential.

The work of Susan Cain, writer, lecturer, and author of Quiet, highlights the value of introverts. She stresses how uniquely effective introvert leaders can be and how extroversion has historically been seen as the more desirable, dominant, and successful trait over introversion. Her work also points to how we need to do more to create learning environments that give the introverts as much of a voice as the extroverts.

If you're interested, check out Susan Cain's popular TED Talk on the power of introverts.

Far from perfect, the remote classroom has created an environment where quieter, more introverted students feel they can speak up and contribute to class discussions. Even though this may be attributed to a sense of distance created by the screen, introverts can really find their voices in these remote situations. Feeling heard could inspire any introverted or quieter student to contribute more, taking discussions to a new level, which in turn would benefit the whole classroom.

Lower Levels of Disruption


Individuals make up a class, but every teacher knows that when a class becomes rowdy or disruptive, it's as if the class takes on a life of its own, making it a distinct challenge to restore peace and quiet.

Remote learning offers a learning environment that is far less prone to disruption than the traditional classroom, where students no longer occupy a single area in a group, but rather connect remotely from their own personal spaces. This split in interpersonal dynamics is a key contributor to a less disruptive—and disrupted—classroom. However, other factors, such as body language, and smaller group dynamics, which are otherwise possible to develop and be interpreted in a traditional environment, have no way to manifest organically in a remote setting.

A More Equitable Learning Environment?


In many ways, the remote classroom provides a more equitable learning environment for vulnerable students, with a host of benefits like reduced travel expenses and minimal stationery requirements. But the jury's out on whether the remote classroom really gives vulnerable students fairer access to education. Teachers and the school environment provide a lifeline for vulnerable students who rely on the community for their progress through the education system.

For teachers and schools wanting to source easy-to-use PDF software, Smallpdf offers an individually priced Pro package, Smallpdf for Teams. Sign up for a free trial, or contact us for a custom plan, and try over 20 PDF tools that'll make the move from traditional to remote teaching so much easier and more streamlined for yourself, students, and parents.

Jennifer Rees
UX Writer