Is Virtual Learning the Future of Education? Our Educators Weigh the Pros and Cons

Distanced learning and education have become more accessible than ever before, with the obstacle of the COVID-19 Pandemic and thanks to advancements in technology. In times of unexpected circumstances, as we all recently faced, the effort to reduce the spread of the virus through virtual learning has become the center of considerable attention and its effects on student health and education. While distance education has its benefits, it is not necessarily the first or best choice for everyone as I’ve learned during the process of my interviews for this story. Some students achieve better educational outcomes with an in-person campus/classroom setting, in-person and first-hand education comes with specific advantages of its own. My main concern — is it possible for students to achieve the same level of learning from virtual classes as compared to a traditional in-classroom experience? To help shed light on this question, I Invited three brilliant Pacific Islander educators to provide personal perspective and first-hand accounts of their experience teaching in both settings.  

Tifi Leiato 
Pago Pago, American Samoa  
32 years as an Educator  
Math Instructor, American Samoa Community College

Tifi’s online Moodle classroom

“In 2020, when our island had its first COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, our faculty was given a week to prepare our students for distance learning. We were advised to use a program called ‘Moodle’, a program not many of us were familiar with. We knew how to create our password and log-in information, but as far as navigating the site’s components, it was a very difficult task with little to no guidance.  To make things even more complicated, we also had to enroll our own students and they could not use their college or personal emails, they had to register with an email required and approved by the program to work.   

It was complete chaos! I did not know how to download any of the students’ work for grading. I had to forward it to my Google account, convert all of the files, and then print them. By the end of the semester of distanced learning, so many of my students had missed their assignments and there were some that I couldn’t submit grades for. The students kept making excuses, but they were all just as frustrated with the program on their end. As a passionate educator, I felt terrible for students that graduated during that time.  A lot of them lacked the knowledge from certain learning objectives, many of course eventually graduate with their degrees, but I cannot honestly say if all of those degrees were rightfully earned.  

With some of her students and staff members on graduation day

It has been two years since the beginning of the pandemic and with this new government administration, there has been a huge improvement. I am now more efficient with the online program, still mostly learning about it all on my own. One of the many problems that the students faced during the first year of lockdown was the lack of access to a computer and internet service at home. Some had to travel for access to the internet through a relative or friend’s home. It was difficult shifting from the classroom to virtual learning. the transition was just so very complicated. Math is very hard to teach online because you’re used to demonstrations on the board; you should always have a board because it is a subject matter where you erase and write, erase and write, and repeat.  

Now, as we have made progress and adapted to distance learning, on Mondays and Wednesdays we do in classroom interactions and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, we go virtual. My rule is not to submit any work online, everything must be turned in in-person during classroom interactions, it is easier that way for me.  

Celebrating a staff member’s birthday 

I had asked some of my students about how they felt about the system. Most agreed that the pros were that they can learn from the comfort of their own homes, take longer breaks when needed and are able to complete assignments outside of school hours. Some students find it comforting that they do not have to face outside distractions that are present in a school environment. Especially those who are socially quiet, a few said that they could learn without fear and anxiety of people judging them.  

The cons are that some students do need hands-on learning assistance, requiring a teacher to be physically present. For this reason, I set up student learning in cooperative groups so that they can learn by communicating mainly with other students. One of the advantages of virtual learning, especially when things happen unexpectedly like the pandemic, is that both teacher and student who are possibly traveling off-island would be able to conduct/attend their courses online and remotely. I had one student who had to leave off-island for a funeral and we had just one more week left of school. I honored her request to attend to her families’ needs so that she could submit her work online while away.  

Tifi in her on-campus office

Its things like familial obligations and medical needs which make distance learning very essential and helpful. I was medically transferred off-island in 2019 due to a heart condition. After a successful surgery I decided to step down as the Mathematics Department Chair and focus on being an instructor for the students. My teaching philosophy has always been to provide my students with the greatest learning experience, so that their self-built strengths aid them in the opportunities available to them in the future. These last two years of the pandemic have prepared us for the worst and I believe we are ready when that transition to better times comes in the near future.” 

 
Will Thompson  
Ofu, Manu’a Islands  
23 years as an Educator  
Elementary Classroom Teacher (and an after school teacher for University of Hawaii via online instruction) 

Will with her students 

“There are a multitude of healthcare needs that are not provided for in Tutuila (American Samoa), so people leave Tutuila to live in the states for access to better medical care. And when it comes to Manua, people from there need to go to Tutuila to get many of their healthcare needs addressed and end up leaving staying in Tutuila, and not returning to Manua. During many of my LIVE videos as a social media persona, I have heard from people in the US longing to come home to Tutuila but cannot return because of their health issues and the need to address them. Same goes for those from Manua living in Tutuila. It has turned in to a way of life. It only got worse with the introduction of the COVID-19 Pandemic that swept every corner of the planet.  
 
Manua has been one of the last places on Earth to be touched by the pandemic. The anxiety as it reached Tutuila only grew as it got closer and closer. Many unscheduled boat and plane trips were coming to the islands of Manua, as people were fleeing the outbreak. The spread of the virus throughout the community increased in Tutuila at an alarming rate and people wanted nothing to do with it. The concerns of our islands’ safety fell on deaf ears. All of the information that was publicized by the COVID-19 Health Task Force and other groups were giving a false picture and reality of the spread of COVID-19 in Manua. We took heed of the lockdown and stayed indoors until we were sure, especially with the concern of rouge boat and plane missions from Tutuila bringing anyone and everyone, infected or otherwise.  
 
When it was announced that schools in Manua would reopen because of the “zero cases” reported in Manua, parents and teachers were concerned the “COVID Free” brand that was placed on Manua was based on ZERO data. It was a hunch of theirs, because even with all the DOH private plane charters, not ONE test kit was sent to Manua to test students, teachers and other villagers. Lo and behold, not too long after the schools reopening in Manua, and as Tutuila cases were dwindling, Manua received its first confirmed case. A country wide test revealed way more than just one case in Manua. We went in to a SECOND shut down. It was frustrating because leaders from Tutuila used their “knowledge and expertise” to make decisions of a place miles away from them with NO input from the people who lived there.  

Will with some of her staff members at Olosega Elementary School

When our schools initially shifted from the classroom to virtual learning, I had an advantage that many other teachers did not have. I had been teaching distance learning classes for the University of Hawaii for quite some time. I had also participated in many classes online as a doctoral student. I had the advantage of being a student and a teacher in the virtual space before COVID hit; this was a simple transition for me. For my students, they have had lots of practice using digital and virtual tools in the classroom because I am not the biggest fan of paper assignments, unless it is something they are drawing, painting or building. The only disadvantage for my students was that they had not tried any of it from home. I felt for many of my fellow teachers who had large class sizes to deal with, so many teachers had not received the sufficient training and practice for online teaching and learning.  

Conducting an on-line class with her students during the first covid-19 lock down in 2020

PROS:  

  • Social distancing and safety.  
  • Reaching students who are more interested in the technological aspect of learning  
  • It builds up our students’ abilities to adapt, as classes in primary school and in higher education tend to shift in to online learning.  
  • It provides practical support for students who will need career ready computer skills, rather than the popular social media skills that students currently excel in.  

CONS 

  • Hands-on learning is lost. The theoretical side of education can be delivered via remote learning but putting it into practice is pretty difficult when students do not have the materials and in-person support from an educator.  
  • Social interaction is severely reduced. It is one thing to be social online, but if we generally start to behave in-person they we behave online, many will have problems.  
  • Teachers with impeccable teaching skills in a classroom setting who are not technologically inclined are reduced in their value and ability. This may even drop teacher motivation and will lead to teachers leaving the profession.  
  • Around the clock technical support is needed for teachers to shine virtually, and this support is nowhere to be found. 

Our future with distance learning has great potential. We can only hope that education in American Samoa will build towards that potential. There are many positive steps being led by the Education department in this direction. However, with the everchanging world, I fear that bureaucracy and being too comfortable with the familiar will be the demise of such bold and necessary strides. Traditional and foundational thinking of education is great as a solid core guideline. The tools to teach this foundation are changing and growing and need to adapt to the changing and adapting student body. Educators who have embraced lifelong learning mindset may be the key to American Samoa’s greatest potential in learning. Hoping for the best while working the frontline of education from the classroom. 

Will in her classroom

MY ONE WISH- Allow teachers to just teach (teaching is way more than enough as it is). With the onset of COVID and COVID Funding, teachers are now expected to be data specialists, healthcare providers, technical wizards, electronic engineers, assessment specialists, counseling providers, reflection writers, grant writers, accountants and Jesus the miracle worker himself, changing water into wine while walking on water to heal the sick and bring people back to life, making the blind see and the lame walk. We must be allowed to just teach the future generations.” 
 
Elijah Mageo 
Glendale, Arizona  
6 years as an Educator  
Teacher at Ethos Academy 

Elijah, his teacher’s aide Mrs. Walker and his 2nd grade students

“I relocated to the mainland three years ago to help take care of my mom who was ill. I never thought I would see myself in the teaching field again until several months after our mom’s passing. One major negative aspect of online learning that I have experienced is that the student lose focus on the lesson because the internet also allows them access to so many other things at the same time. Especially when working with young children, it is just extremely complicated. was hired in the middle of the 2021 school year when the U.S. school system was slowly transitioning back to in-person classroom learning.  

Shifting from in-person to online learning was a huge adjustment at first. Students could not communicate very well at all. Virtual learning made socializing impossible, especially with the atmosphere they were so used to and comfortable with stripped from them. The online learning system did not provide any hands-on materials that were essential to student learning. Printed packets provided by the school were either incomplete or arrived way past the day of their deadline. In addition, there was no way to monitor their learning abilities when cameras on the other end would go off or are muted throughout the lessons.

Elijah with his student Dillon during a Halloween school activity.

However, there are unique possibilities with distance learning. One positive was the safety of the students, virtual learning allowed them the comfort and safety of learning from home with their parents. It also gave my students the chance to develop self-help skills and discipline. My students definitely needed both the comfort of their parents together with their teacher’s support in order to maintain those skills.  
 
During the first year of President Biden’s administration, most of our teachers were vaccinated and restrictions eased up as things were slowly getting “back to normal.” While COVID-19 cases were still on the rise, we were able to safely return to a regular school schedule. The push to reopen schools gave students the opportunity to return to in-person learning. Cleaning protocols were in place, masks being worn, social distance measures and class quarantines as well.  

Elijah with his Ethos Academy staff members  

We have done everything we can to keep everyone safe. Our teachers and school administrators were absolutely heroic every single day. As an educator in the midst of fighting a global pandemic, we continued to provide a strong education for our students. It made us better, stronger and more united because of it. My only hope is for our kids to continue to lead the path to a bright future in spite of circumstances beyond our control.”  

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