Six ways to stay afloat with virtual learning | Education Issue | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Six ways to stay afloat with virtual learning

click to enlarge Six ways to stay afloat with virtual learning
Photo: Meg St-Esprit
Meg St-Esprit sharing the table at home with her four children
Virtual learning has presented many students with problems from the start. Inequities in internet connectivity, technology access, and language fluency have continued to be a problem, especially for families in low-income or non-English speaking communities. And as the pandemic drags on, a new level of burnout has been added for students of all ages who have spent months being educated through a screen without their usual in-person peer support.

But within these challenging systems, students and parents of students can still take actions to make their workloads more manageable, stay motivated, and care for their mental well-being. Here are six ways to start.

1. Set a routine that works for you

It may help to stick to the same routines you had while you were doing in-person school, but the reality is that the pandemic has lasted a year, and different routines work for different people. The most important part is finding what works for you rather than trying to fit into a preconceived notion of what school is “supposed” to look like right now.

Find a time and place where you can work, and if you live with others, communicate with them to figure out who needs WiFi bandwidth and relative quiet at what times. It might be hard without the physical structure of a classroom to put you in a learning mindset, but carving out a physical and mental space for classes can help you stay focused, so long as you stick with it.

“Self discipline, I think that's one of the biggest things, is you have to be determined, you have to put in the work that says, well, just because there's no ‘official deadline’ anymore … it doesn't mean you should slack off with doing your work, doing your research, whatever it is that your responsibilities are as a student,” Pitt graduate student Alexander Liu says.

2. Participate in class

It might be difficult to participate in asynchronous, pre-recorded classes, but finding ways to engage can help ground you in the classes you’re taking and, hopefully, help you retain more of the information. For those participating in live classes, one of the easiest ways to participate is to turn your camera on. Liu says it can be a nod of respect to your instructor, saying, “Hey, I'm here, I'm present. And I'm going to listen to what you're saying.”

Keeping your camera on also helps create accountability for yourself to stay off your phone or other distracting websites. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing the inside of your home with your teacher and classmates, virtual backgrounds offer an alternative while still helping solidify the classroom environment.

But, according to researchers, it’s also important for teachers not to pressure students to keep their cameras on if they don’t feel comfortable. If you can’t keep your camera on while completing schoolwork, whether it’s because you have to take care of siblings or your own children, you don’t have access to a computer with a camera, or your internet connection lacks the bandwidth required for video streaming, there are other ways to participate in class. Experiment with taking notes while watching the lesson, write down thoughts after the class, or reach out to your teacher about the class and find what works best for you.

click to enlarge Six ways to stay afloat with virtual learning
Photo: Chelsea Cimbala
Chelsea Cimbala balances her focus between virtual classes and her 30-hour-per-week job.

3. Keep an agenda

Living with the stress of a pandemic, even when you haven’t gotten sick, deeply affects one’s ability to remember things. Keeping an agenda in whatever medium helps the most is vital to staying on top of assignments. Using a physical planner, making a color-coded Trello board, setting reminders on your phone, leaving yourself sticky notes around your desk or on your fridge — whatever works. Make sure to take into account what’s most important, and what will take the most time and energy, and double or triple up for important assignments or events if it helps.

“I usually do them by the week. It actually kind of works out that most of my classes have stuff due just on Sundays,” Duquesne senior Chelsea Cimbala says. “So I can tell myself, ‘OK, I have to get this done this week, because it's all due on Sunday’ … As long as you're willing to work through it throughout the week, it works out.”

4. Stay in touch with friends

While it’s good to check in with your parents and teachers to let them know how you’re doing, your friends are the ones who are actually in the same situation as you. Whether it’s to seek advice, distract yourself from virtual learning, or simply commiserate, talking to friends can be a huge help. Friends can also remind you of assignments or deadlines for classes if you missed a notification from your teacher, or to confirm what you heard the teacher assign.

“I think just having friends that are in the same class makes it a lot easier because I think often … professors forget if they said something in class or not,” Cimbala says. “So sometimes it's nice to have friends in the class to be able to text and be like, ‘Hey, did you do that quiz?’ And you're like, ‘What quiz?’”

5. Use online resources

There have been online resources such as Crash Course ( and Khan Academy ( long before the pandemic, but many more resources are adapting to be available online. There are courses and supplementary material available through platforms like Outschool ( and IXL ( for grades K-12, and free materials on YouTube. Local organizations like churches and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh ( are also offering courses for free or pay-what-you-can rates.

“It's kind of like hunting for the things that will work and that you can afford,” says Meg St-Esprit, a freelance journalist with three children in homeschooling and a toddler. “We've done a lot of art ones on YouTube, and found a lot of really good science things like experiments to do. We've done a lot of slime. So definitely, we're being creative with how we fit stuff in.”
click to enlarge Six ways to stay afloat with virtual learning
Photo: Meg St-Esprit
Meg St-Esprit’s children having fun with a science experiment using dry ice during homeschool

6. Ask for help

Some classes simply don’t translate well to virtual learning. Watching a teacher perform an experiment or use equipment doesn’t allow you to build the same practical knowledge as doing it yourself. Other times, extenuating circumstances in your life make it more difficult to keep up with classes. In either case, reach out to the teacher, department, or school.

“Communicate what's not working for you. We definitely were given a lot of flexibility by our principal and our superintendent and the teachers,” St-Esprit says. “They're probably willing to be more flexible than most people might realize.”