• Jennifer Smith

What I Think of Bimodal Teaching

Updated: Mar 4

An Experienced Educator's Perspective

Photo Credit: Zhuo Cheng on Unsplash

Who came up with the idea of teaching bimodally this year? Who thought this might be an effective means to teach our K-12 children? Really, I want to know if that person was an educator. Did they think this experience through, or was it just a quick decision in a tough moment that everyone latched onto? And, why did everyone latch onto it? Was there no one who thought this concept through to the actual presentation?

What I imagine the inventor of the concept thought was this: A teacher can have technology access to welcome students into the classroom from their home. A teacher can go about their typical teaching business-standing in front of the room and lecturing, reading to students, or giving instructions. Students at home would be welcomed into the classroom with the technology and be immersed into sort of a virtual reality of classes. Students can interact with the teacher and other students just as if they were present in person. Several students may be at home and can work together in groups while the in-person students can collaborate. The truth of the matter is, however, teaching is not like this in a K-12 environment, and our classroom technology is not advanced enough to make a learning from home experience equivalent to learning in the classroom.

Here is what bimodal teaching is really like. During any given class period, I teach a range of 1-6 virtual students in addition to my regular in-person students with class sizes ranging from 13-18. I am fortunate enough to teach in a school setting with small class sizes, so my issues are minimal compared to those in larger public environments. However, my challenge is the same. I set up my computer to a projector (in my building, I do not have wireless access to the projector, so my computer must remain in the same location), and I connect to Zoom for the students who are virtual. My classroom students are seated 6 feet apart with plexiglass between them for protection, so they do not interact in the same way as we normally do. Students who are virtual connect to my Zoom, and they are usually projected on the screen in the front of my room. I can switch the visual so that they see the students in class, but the camera is small and provides a panoramic-type view, a screenshot of the classroom if you will. The view feels nothing like being inside the classroom with others.

Why do I have to project them on the screen? My lessons are on my computer. If we are reading a text, watching a video, sharing a slideshow, I have to show the documents to both students at home and in the class. The only way to get the information located on the computer is to share my screen either as if during a Zoom meeting or on the large classroom screen for those in-person. As a result of this, students at home are often projected in front of the larger class. When my own daughter had to wait for the results of a covid test, she exclaimed, “NO! I do not want to be virtual! They put your face on the screen in the front of the room!” Teachers often have no choice in this. It is also the only way to read the students at home through their screens or face to determine if there are questions.

During normal times, I walk around the classroom. I do not lecture and remain in one place for the entire class period. I engage with the students, chat individually with some, and look over their shoulders as they work. Teaching bimodally, however, I am restricted to remaining in front of my computer so that students learning at home can see and interact with me. I can walk the room if I carry my laptop around with me; however, I cannot connect to the projector and share documents or information at the same time. As a result, my teaching is impaired as are the connections I can make with students.

Bimodal instruction is like texting while driving. No one can do both effectively at the same time. Teachers can not put 100% into either method and wind up feeling as though lessons are unsuccessful. Classroom management is nearly impossible as I am navigating between students in my physical classroom and those on Zoom. If I focus on the students in my classroom, the students at home miss out. If I am really looking and listening to a student at home over my computer, I miss the behavior or lose attention of students in the classroom.

It goes without saying that internet connectivity is an issue. Students at home are beholden to their internet in order to receive lessons on a daily basis. Students who are in-person can easily connect with their teacher on in-person days if they have internet issues during the virtual days in a hybrid schedule. Internet has been a major stumbling block even for wealthy families due to the number of people connecting to the internet, streaming, and videoconferencing. Families who live in more rural areas struggle consistently. During my classes this year, many virtual students have faced internet trouble, and I was unable to assist them. As a result, they may have missed lessons and small group discussions, fallen behind on assignments, or even, missed assessments.

Socially, virtual students miss out on so much interaction that occurs within the classroom. Side conversations, little jokes, questions students ask are not all heard through the Zoom screen. Yet, these are all important aspects of the classroom and the relationships we build. Much of my teaching is typically through group work and opportunities for collaboration. However, students at home are limited to connecting solely through the screen with classmates. Technology-wise, it is often easier to pair students who are working virtually together through the breakout room option rather than pair them with in-person students. The tech noise that flares loudly when more than one person in a room is virtual is unbearable, and students are not always able to leave the classroom to work in a hallway or other area. So much of learning is socialization, and collaboration experience is one of the most important skills companies are looking for in hiring today. Yet, students who have spent the past year learning virtually have been limited in their abilities to connect and grow in this way.

As the teacher, I interact differently with students who are in-person than those who remain at home. I try to engage those at home, yet the environment is challenging and inevitably, the virtual students are left out of side discussions and may not hear questions. As students enter my classroom, we chat about their day, I help them solve problems like managing a messy backpack, we laugh together about when they got lost because the schedule confused them, and we discuss what the lunch menu is for the day. All of these conversations are the foundation of relationships. Students on screen miss these little opportunities to connect and engage with me as a person, not just their teacher.

As for projects and assessments, bimodal is so far from ideal. Every test or quiz I give to students must be created online. Students taking tests at home do not have the same environment as the students in-person, and they rarely ask questions about instructions or seek help when they need it. I am able to gather very little feedback on virtual students’ test taking skills as the only reference I have is the score on their tests. Projects and presentations are not developing the same skills as in the past. Presenting from your home over a video is very different from standing in front of a class of 20 peers to share your knowledge or research. The audience when observing through a screen can be disengaged, and “presence” has a completely different meaning.

What was the goal of bimodal learning? The goal was to reach more students during these difficult times as we all faced the dangers of a deadly virus. Did we accomplish the goal? Are virtual students achieving and learning at the same rate as those able to return to in person learning? The answer to that is no. We now face a return to in-person school in the fall with students who had a variety of learning experiences. Classes will have a combination of students who learned virtually and in-person, and their skill sets will be far from equal. Teachers will be faced with new challenges for years. How will we assess students on skills they missed due to virtual learning? Will we be able to set the same standards for all students-those who spent a year learning virtually and those who did not? Will we be able to address the needs of those who were not in-person moving forward to enable them to “catch up”?

Why were we not more committed to creative and effective solutions from the start? Why were we unable to innovate and create means for teaching all students? Will we be more innovative when it comes to our future needs in education?

Our children deserve better.

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