Image: GettyImages/Marko Geber

After a year of remote learning, many schools have returned to the classroom in recent weeks, although the delta variant and surging cases are adding uncertainty to these plans. To proactively prepare for the possibility of online learning in the months ahead, there are measures parents can take and considerations to bear in mind. Earlier this month, Zoom released a roundup of tips to help parents prepare for the virtual and hybrid school year. To learn more, we spoke with Pat La Morte, global education solutions lead at Zoom.

Designing a product workstation

Last year, with the switch to remote work and distance learning, many households were left to set up home workstations on short notice with varying degrees of success. While a resourceful approach may have been sufficient for the first go-around, parents can take steps to proactively design an optimal remote learning environment this fall, starting with a suitable workstation.

“As much as some students may be tempted to work from bed, it’s best to sit at a desk or table to help maintain concentration,” La Morte said.

Additionally, he suggested parents establish an environment without distractions “as much as possible,” this includes eliminating access to things like video games and social media. To eliminate eye strain, he recommended ensuring the space is brightly lit and emphasized the importance of setting a schedule for learning.

In smaller spaces, it isn’t always possible to set aside a dedicated room for remote learning. With multiple children learning in a common space, parents can transform individual corners into learning stations and hold children accountable for respecting each other’s area, La Morte said.

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During the pandemic, many remote workers have served as caregivers for others in their households. At the same time, some older remote students may have been asked to look after younger siblings who were also learning at home and this can lead to challenges. Situationally, it may be OK to allow tablets and smart devices to enter the virtual classroom while class is in session, albeit with caveats.

“It is difficult for students to focus if they are being asked to do chores or actively supervising younger siblings, or if the TV is on in the room,” La Morte said. “If the student is the only available caregiver for a younger sibling, though, it might be a good idea to provide the smaller child with a distracting activity such as a show or tablet during class time.”

Virtual backgrounds and useful features

Over the last year, virtual backgrounds have been popular among remote workers and students alike, allowing people to add a little flavor to a standard video call or lesson. Similarly, La Morte said these backgrounds can help students “express their personalities” and use themed days to “inject fun into learning” and suggested encouraging students to “make their own backgrounds that reflect the lesson at hand.”

Additionally, he said these backdrops also add a layer of privacy to the learning environment, which he explained is a student request the company “often” hears.

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Aside from virtual backgrounds, there are a number of other Zoom features teachers and students can tap to enhance the learning experience. On larger video calls, it can be hard to focus on a particular speaker or topic with a grid brimming with talking heads. To assist, La Morte made note of Zoom’s customizable gallery view to rearrange participants’ grids as desired and the new Focus Mode to help students focus by eliminating other classroom participants aside from the teacher from their view.

“Focus Mode provides a way for teachers to supervise their class while students are not distracted by their peers’ video feeds and can turn on their own camera without feeling self-conscious,” he said.

Situationally, the spotlight video feature sets a particular person as the primary speaker for all people in a lesson, bringing these squares front and center, La Morte explained, and the original audio mode helps boost audio quality to enable “authentic performances” for students taking music lessons.

Reimagining the virtual classroom

Over the last year and a half, video platforms have replaced traditional in-person activities and celebrations amid lockdowns and social distancing recommendations. Outside of standard virtual classroom lessons, there are opportunities for educators to inspire and engage students using the video platform.

“Just like with remote work, socialization outside of the virtual classroom takes intention, but creative ideas lead to rewarding connections. Some of these include student club meetings, guest speakers from the communities, talent shows to name a few,” La Morte said.

“When schools re-imagine, and not simply recreate how these events can be equally as meaningful, they are very successful.”