Hendrik Visnapuu’s poem about a spring that arrives differently is being quoted more than ever this year and not only in Estonian language classes. In order to stop the spread of the corona virus, Estonian schools, for the first time in history, switched to total distance learning. Estonian teachers in the new situation confirm that the first anxiety has passed and now they just need to learn how to cope with it.
According to Joana Jõgela, a chemistry teacher at Hugo Treffner Gymnasium, there was talk of a possible closure a week earlier. Even so, the announcement of the transition to distance learning shocked both educators and students. „On March 13, Friday, signs appeared on the walls of the schoolhouse that the school was closing and we had to face a new reality.“ says Jõgela and honestly admits that her first emotion was panic. “The questions in my head were: What do I do now? How do the practical assignments get done? And then, of course, what happens to the tests and term grades?” Jõgela describes.
Difficulties of the first days
Gustav Adolf Gymnasium’s Estonian language and literature teacher Maarja-Liisa Vokksepp faced the first days of e-learning with the same anxiety and uncertainty. “I felt like a duck in the water during stormy weather: quite calm on the outside, but my feet paddling hard and splattering water everywhere.” Vokksepp told with a smirk. She started working at 7.30 in the morning and closed the computer at 22.38. On the next day she finished an hour earlier than before. “Progress!” jokes the teacher.
Humor goes a long way in difficult times, especially since communicating and teaching from a distance does not mean an easy life. Teacher Vokksepp teaches five subjects for five classes and another two subjects for two classes.
“The systems for the functioning of e-learning are more or less set up, but the amount of ungiven feedback on assignments is increasing and I’m going crazy. All the time it’s like clearing a forest fire and sometimes I’m reinventing a bicycle even though everything seems to be there in my head.” she introduces the inner workings of the first week of e-learning.
It’s not so difficult
It is certainly easier for digitally literate teachers who were already using technology in their classes before schools were closed. “In fact, it is extremely easy to do distance learning today, with so many different channels, apps, and gadgets to inspire students to learn,” admits chemistry teacher Joana Jõgela. Already before the emergency situation, one of her favorite tools was the Moodle environment, where one can easily upload learning videos. “In the past, I always had someone to help with making videos, but now I had to manage with everything myself,” says Jõgela, admitting that video recording and editing was surprisingly easy.
“I use a Screenrec, a freeware program, which just records a computer screen image with sound. First I make the slides for a certain topic, then I record audio commentary and that’s pretty much it. Sometimes I’ll edit in some interesting videos of experiments because it’s hard to understand chemistry without it. I upload the video to Moodle where the students can access it. I also upload materials with solutions to problems and tests that check the knowledge of students.”
In addition to Moodle, Jõgela also uses the Learningapps environment and does daily Skype consultations with students. The latter take place in smaller groups of 10 to 15 students and they are for discussing difficult to understand problems and also just to have some social contact too.
Estonian teacher Maarja-Liisa Vokksepp says that there are many choices for online test environments, independent studying apps and that Google Drive and other environments have already become a standard part of education. Teacher Vokksepp’s classes mostly use the Socrative environment for exercises and tests, and occasionally children write papers and do presentations in Google Drive. “Google Classroom, Hangouts, and Meet have been added to my life right now,” Vokksepp lists.
“At times, it is difficult to navigate in the maze of digital opportunities, not to mention the students who probably have to have to deal with a hundred different environments right now,” she points out. Chemistry teacher Jõgela agrees with this: “Digital teaching can be done in a thousand ways and this is what caused most of the teachers’ panic,” Jõgela knows.
Instead of trying all the available options, she advises every teacher to find a few environments and applications that fit his or her own personality and working principles. In addition, each school is advised to agree on its own e-learning channels so that students do not have to use ten different environments.
Teachers are sticking together
Along with technology problems, educators are confronted with communication issues. How to understand if the amount of homework given to children is just right or too much? Does the whole class understand the new chapter? How to praise, comfort, offer help, and understand who needs help when I can’t look the students in the eyes and understand what they’re feeling? And how can we be sure that in this very new field of education, the seeds will continue to grow in fertile soil, and that when it’s time for harvest, we still have our intellect and willpower left.
Difficult times unite people. Teachers Jõgela and Vokksepp both confirm that education workers are supporting each other. Teachers are sharing materials, suggestions, tricks, and helping each other out in the virtual world when a colleague is in trouble. “I like how the current situation has suddenly united all our teachers. I honestly don’t think I would have managed it if I didn’t have as many virtual shoulders to support my head on,” Vokksepp admits. These adrenaline-filled days at the forefront of Estonian e-learning have not broken her, on the contrary, Estonian language and literature teacher Maarja-Liisa Vokksepp, has come to a certain recognition – her work is important and valuable.
Chemistry teacher Joana Jõgela also shares the joy that teachers took on the e-learning challenge with dignity. “That’s one of the coolest aspects of teaching. Every day (and even every hour in this situation) you learn something new, develop, invent, search for solutions, fail and find new solutions, but you know that in the end you can do it,”confirms Jõgela and encourages those who have thought of becoming a teacher: “If you feel that a tiny solution seeker, clarifier, team player, and self-developer exists in you, then the teaching profession is for you and you just have to choose your subject.”