Breaking Through the Screen in a Virtual Classroom

Dawn Edwards

Most of us would not be surprised to hear that the vast majority of American teenagers have their own smartphone, tablet, laptop, or other device where they spend a huge amount of time online every day. A 2018 survey by Pew Research Center revealed, “95% of teens now report they have a smartphone or access to one. These mobile connections are in turn fueling more-persistent online activities: 45% of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis."1

Hearing those statistics, you might be inclined to worry about how persistent online activities—from social media to gaming and even online learning—are replacing real human interaction, and what impact the lack of face-to-face social connection might have on today’s youth.

In the education realm, virtual courses are becoming more widespread for a variety of reasons that accommodate many different needs for students. Yet some onlookers have a misconception that online learning is a solitary and passive experience. They may picture a student staring indifferently at a screen without any human interaction or hands-on learning.

If you are not familiar with virtual courses, you may be surprised and delighted by what an online course can actually entail! The reality is that virtual teachers like myself are finding new and better ways to incorporate hands-on learning, as well as student–teacher and student-to-student interaction in online courses. Allow me to share a glimpse into my experience with the Fine Arts virtual courses that I teach through Fuel Education.

A Glimpse into a Virtual Fine Arts Course
In FuelEd’s Fine Arts virtual courses, we have several hands-on art projects built in to the curriculum where students are required to use art materials such as paper, pencil, paint, and clay, and follow directions to create art. Yes, actual artwork that is not computer-generated! For example, students in my virtual course are required to create a still-life painting, a clay sculpture of a human form, a self-portrait painting, and several other hands-on projects.

Looking beyond these types of hands-on projects, there is always more we can do as virtual teachers to help students really connect to the course content and become more actively involved in their learning, without asking for just more screen time. Here are some ideas I have added to my virtual courses this year to provide more real-life experiences and inspire creativity in my online students:

1. Schedule a monthly online event they can look forward to!
I hold a monthly “In the Artist’s Studio” showcase. My students can join a live virtual session where they learn about a particular artist I am highlighting. I began the series this year by highlighting my own artwork and technique as an encaustic painter. During the live session, I introduced my encaustic painting technique, which is painting with hot wax. I shared some of my artwork that has been displayed in several galleries since I first began painting six years ago.

Pictured right and below: encaustic paintings by Dawn Edwards

For future “In the Artist’s Studio” sessions, I plan to highlight my colleagues—other FuelEd art instructors and their techniques, tools, and ideas about creating art. I also have a goal to invite full-time working artists to join our sessions to discuss career options with my students.


2. Create opportunities for students to share and engage in discussion.
Each month, I also hold a “Teach the Teacher” live session. During this virtual session, I feature one student’s presentation that shows off the art-related skill of their choice—whether it is a type of painting, handwriting, sculpting, or another art form they really enjoy.

For example, my student Loryn B. shared several of her drawings and talked about how art has been therapeutic during some tough times in her life. Loryn shared, “I was having a very hard night, and one of the things that helps me relax or calm down the most is a night sky in an area of nature that is away from other people and things. I was having a hard time picturing it that night, so I drew it.”
Pictured above, right: A Peaceful Night in the Mountains, by student Loryn B., using soft pastels

Loryn also presented her piece Friendly Love, in honor of a dear friend who moved away. Loryn shared, “I had a great friend… she had a very hard time expressing her feelings, so the way we said ‘I love you’ to each other was we would make a heart with our hands.”
Pictured right: Friendly Love, by student Loryn B., using mechanical pencil

While each student works independently to create their presentation, the live session provides an opportunity for classmates to come together and learn from a peer. The student is able to share his/her thoughts on creating art, and what they are proud of, while the class benefits from spending quality time together critiquing and discussing the art.

Why is it important to create an inclusive class environment through discussion?
In her article, Building Social Connections Through Discussion for Better Learning, Rice University professor and Assistant Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence Dr. Robin Page says:

“We learn a great deal from others who are different from ourselves. As demonstrated by Lev Vgotsky’s research on child development… learning is mediated by collaboration with others, especially those with more or different knowledge than the learner.”2

Through their peers, my students are learning about art forms they may not have encountered or attempted on their own! This is a terrific example of how today’s virtual courses can offer an interactive and social experience that many would not expect.

3. Encourage field trips and field research.
Last but not least, I encourage my students to visit local art galleries and museums where they live, or when they travel. I ask them to bring back a brochure or flyer, and upload an image of it to our course platform along with a summary of what they saw. Imagine how this is like a virtual field trip for their fellow classmates who may not otherwise have the chance to visit this particular exhibit in person!

All of these interactive, hands-on activities are designed to help develop social skills and critical thinking skills, and to help students grasp the real-life applications for the content they are learning in their virtual courses. These live events and social opportunities can help them break through the screen of the virtual classroom in order to experience learning with their teacher and their peers—and better yet, take that knowledge out into the world around them.

To learn more about FuelEd virtual courses and instruction, contact us.

About Dawn Edwards
Dawn Edwards is an artist and a teacher with Fuel Education’s Instructional Services team. Over the course of her nine years with FuelEd, Dawn has worked with many students, families, and other teachers and finds that building relationships in a virtual setting is key to student academic and creative growth. One of her favorite things about being a virtual instructor is observing students build an excitement for learning that is not always found in the traditional classroom.

Dawn has a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, a master’s degree in Secondary Education, and a master’s degree in Administration & Supervision. Prior to joining FuelEd, she taught art to students in a brick-and-mortar setting for four years.

1Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018. Pew Research Center: Internet and Technology. May 31, 2018.
2Building Social Connections Through Discussion for Better Learning. Paige, Dr. Robin. Rice Center for Teaching Excellence blog, Aug. 13, 2015.

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