As coronavirus continues to dominate headlines and dictate the trajectory of our day-to-day lives, remote communication has emerged as the solution to keeping people safe and socially distant. But it’s not only white-collar workers telecommuting from home. As we trudge ahead into the end of the year, school is back in session for kids of all ages. While mom and dad work at the kitchen table, kids are learning on the couch.

Long distance learning has become the new norm, but concerns around its efficacy are quite valid. While Zoom lessons represent an opportunity beyond homeschooling and module-based learning, they still fall short of a classroom experience. Parents are vocal about voicing concerns—disengaged kids, uninspiring lesson plans, technical difficulties and the like. It’s clear that while distance learning is better than the alternative—a coronavirus-prone classroom—it can still fall short of what parents, teachers and, most important, students, need it to be.

But there’s hope! Long distance learning is still in its infancy and it’s getting better every day. As they get acclimated to this new norm, educators are getting better at identifying challenges and opportunities, using the latter to overcome the former.

We sat down with former television actor and current high-school educator Nicholas Ferroni, to discuss how he and other teachers are making long distance learning work.

Distance is an opportunity for inclusion

While the downsides of long distance learning are apparent, people are quick to overlook some of its most ardent positives—including opportunities for inclusion. Nicholas explains how something as simple as a Bitmoji classroom allows students to express themselves in creative ways, and how, for some students, digital expression is a gateway for authenticity.

“I try to make sure all students feel represented and all students have the resources they need to succeed in the classroom,” he says. “I’m actually doing a campaign with three of my former students who live with physical disabilities—who are in wheelchairs. A lot of teachers now are making Bitmoji classrooms, which are incredible for their students. But there aren’t always options for kids with disabilities. It’s something most people—myself included—haven’t ever had to think about. My students are working to make Bitmoji more inclusive because it’s how they represent themselves.”

It’s easy to think of Zoom classrooms or distance learning as a tool, but Nicholas and other teachers are learning that, to their kids, it’s as much a medium for expression as it is learning. Keeping kids engaged means giving them the ability to express themselves—whether through a Bitmoji or some other personalization.

Inclusion doesn’t just extend to self-expression, either. Nicholas talks at length about accommodating kids with different learning styles, work habits or personalities, in an environment that supports them all.

“[Virtual learning] also benefits students who are introverts, who function independently. We talk when they get their assignments, they work on them, and then they submit them. They can ask questions if they have them,” he says, addressing common concerns about socializing in the era of distance learning. “Do I think this is detrimental to introverts? Not at all. I think introverts kind of benefit from this type of social atmosphere.”

There’s no replacing the classroom, and that’s okay

One of the running themes Nicholas and educators see in criticism of Zoom learning is that it doesn’t replicate the classroom experience well-enough. The question is, how could it? There’s a profound gap between in-person learning and long distance learning. Instead of trying to replace the former with the latter, teachers are learning to create an entirely new experience using the tools at their disposal.

“Virtual learning still doesn’t outweigh the benefit of having students in the classroom, to be honest. It’s easier to motivate them in person, which is really what my passion is as an educator. It’s tough to feel that way,” Nicholas says. “But I feel like [distance learning] does benefit students when it comes from the right place and benefits them in a sense where it shows them that, if they want to work in a specific setting, they can.”

Educators need to lean on the flexibility and agility of distance learning resources to inspire kids. Nicholas provides a wonderful example of this as he explains the idea of structured interactions using different video chat rooms. Instead of one classroom, Nicholas’ classroom becomes multiple avenues for engagement.

“Sitting in front of a computer for 80 minutes is impossible, I don’t care who you have talking! Nor should anybody have to deal with 80 minutes of lecture. So, I break my classroom up into 10- or 20-minute blocks,” he says. “The first thing we do is meditation, which my students love. It’s self-care for their mindset. Then, we do recaps, where we’ll go over what we did the day before and cover anything on their minds or how they’re feeling, as more of a reflection. Then, we jump into the next activity and I have them pick a breakout room they want to go to. If they want to go talk to their friends, they can. If they want to work alone, they can. I go from room to room and check on everybody, or I’ll have a ‘teacher room’ where I’ll be waiting for them.”

This concept of class delineation is a powerful one that more and more teachers can use to keep kids engaged in a way that resonates with them. Social butterflies work together on group work. Introverts collect for head-down desk work. Individual students with questions get the one-on-one time they need with the teacher. Everyone learns.

“[Students] can work on their time and around their schedule,” Nicholas says, emphasizing the flexibility of multiple Zoom classrooms. “A lot of students have other responsibilities. I have students who will pop in classrooms before going to work or while watching a sibling. They get their assignments and check in with me if they have any questions, and work how their schedule permits that day. I feel like it benefits students in a different kind of structured sense.”

Social-emotional support for the new norm

As distance learning strategies emerge, the key in helping students adapt to them is to reinforce the notion of support. Teachers and peers may be at the other end of the computer screen, but that doesn’t mean they can’t offer support and guidance when they’re needed. It’s often as easy as having a chat.

“I mean, honestly, just having those conversations with them to let him know I care goes a long way,” said Nicholas. “I constantly tell them, ‘I know this is tough’ and I try being empathetic in letting them know how tough it is on them. It’s tough on me! It’s like this is not ideal, but we’ll make the best of it. We’ll get through it.”

The other aspect of communication is environment. Kids may be reluctant to share their feelings or express their needs if they don’t feel comfortable in their environment. This is even more important when that environment is a digital one. They’re at home, but expressing themselves in a virtual setting. For many, it’s an adjustment and one worth special consideration for teachers.

“Ensuring students ‘walk’ into class and feel like they can let their guard down, and feel comfortable, and feel cared for is important in any safe environment. If Maslow’s needs aren’t met, Bloom’s Taxonomy and learning will never take place,” says Nicholas. “I work hard to take their guard down. I care about them first; I teach them second. Because, again, if they don’t think I care, they won’t be willing to learn.”

Social-emotional availability needs to happen at every level of distance learning—especially if this truly is the new normal—or even an approximation of it. The role of school and education in social and emotional development is significant, and the way kids are learning is changing.

“I have the luxury of having high school students, so I can have adult conversations with them and they’re more expressive. At same time, they’re probably more reserved than kids are, they don’t just share everything,” says Nicholas. “Besides the meditation, which is incredibly effective, I just do a lot of fun, engaging activities that benefit the class and serve a purpose, whether it’s academic, social or emotional.”

Explore the opportunities distance learning affords

Most people see distance as a barrier preventing kids from getting the best possible education today. But what if distance was an opportunity to create new learning experiences? Educators like Nicholas are turning this concept on its head. Instead of barring kids from certain activities, distance is affording them brand-new experiences. For Nicholas’ students, that often means a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity.

“Over the past year I’ve had celebrities surprise our Zoom sessions,” he says. “I teach cultural studies and pop culture. So, I had Jamie Alexander—who plays Sif in the Thor movies and who’s the star of the show Blindspot—come on and talk to my cultural studies students about female representation. We also had Lindsey Shaw—one of the stars of Ned’s Declassified—talk about how that show was relevant to my students and teen culture. My students grew up with these shows! I’m trying to pull everything I can to keep them engaged and try to make it fun, but also tie into what we’re learning.”

Not every teacher has access to Hollywood actresses, but that shouldn’t stop educators from finding opportunities to loop in speakers, guests and experts. Long distance learning makes it easy—all they need to do is fire up a webcam and share their insights. The impact for students is profound.

“It’s been very effective,” says Nicholas. “It gets kids to show up and engage, because they never know what could happen or who could surprise them!”

Teachers helping teachers help students

The biggest factor in making long distance learning a viable long-term option for education? Community. The concept only gets better if educators share what works and iterate to produce results. Thankfully, it’s a practice that’s already in full swing.

“Teachers have been so great on social media, sharing their resources and providing teacher tutorials,” says Nicholas. “I’ll be honest, I would not be as successful as I am right now as a virtual teacher if not for other teachers sharing those resources. I think collaboration now is not only essential with kids, but with educators.”

Beyond lesson plans and software recommendations, Nicholas also emphasizes the camaraderie of teachers across the country. “It sounds so cheesy, but the human connection and the human vibe and the feeling are all important parts of this. I mean, it’s tough, and to kind of share in that in the moment when it’s virtual is big.”

Above all, the motivation to make something out of the current situation is what’s driving distance learning to evolve in new and successful ways. For educators like Nicholas, using technology and distance to their advantage opens the door to new forms of engagement, learning and socialization.

“It’s so easy to not be motivated or to put work aside because, you know, they feel like this isn’t their norm. This isn’t real and we’re not in the classroom,” he says. “I feel like if we can keep motivated in this platform, which again, is so tough to do, we can be successful.”

Distance learning can work

Distance learning is still in its infancy and there are still many question marks about how it’ll continue to evolve during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond. Whatever trajectory it takes, it’ll be powered by the educators blazing a trail for better distance learning practices today. They’re emphasizing inclusion, promoting social-emotional welfare, and using distance as a tool instead of a barrier.

Despite a rocky start, long distance learning is getting better every day—especially as teachers like Nicholas share their ideas for how to keep students engaged and motivated. To help teachers do their jobs even better, products like Sococo continue to innovate. Check out Sococo for Classrooms today for a free trial and to start deploying these virtual learning strategies—or explore your own.