Michael Corb
Michael Corb
April 8, 2020

Finding the Balance Between Physical and Online Learning

Michael Corb
Michael Corb

The following is part of a series of personal perspectives shared by members of our Education Practice about COVID-19’s impact on education in their lives.

As a parent with children in middle school, I’m used to them engaging in some form of online learning. Prior to COVID-19, our local school district created “Flexible Instruction Days” as a way to avoid instructional downtime due to snow days.

Now, the platform originally created for limited use is being more intensely tested with ‘physical’ school indefinitely cancelled. As an architect with a career focused on designing engaging learning environments, I’m constantly immersed in discussions surrounding current and future pedagogy. And, the most heavily debated aspect of those discussions always revolves around digital learning. Central to those discussions is the relevancy and efficacy of digital learning, and the access it provides for students.

While working from home with my children, it’s interesting to see how facile they are in using these newer tools, and how adept they are with navigating newer platforms; their engagement appears to be real and relevant. As we all continue to work from home and rely upon technology exclusively to collaborate, communicate and learn, I feel we’re in some serendipitous controlled experiment. In many respects we’re immersed in the digital educational environment we’ve been planning for, right?

Despite the preparations we’ve taken, there are still many questions I have as both a parent and architect:

  • Have we crossed the threshold where digital instruction becomes the dominant platform for teaching and learning?
  • Are digital experiences just as meaningful as physical ones?
  • Do we need to be in a building or on a campus to learn?

After watching my children, I’m conflicted. In its highest form, learning is like a dance—it’s fluid, effortless, beautiful. It requires both real and inferred queues of action and reaction that happen when individuals are present and in relationship with each other. I see my son engaging with instructional videos and many of the components are there—there’s instruction, there’s listening, there’s information being transferred from one to another, and there’s learning. But what appears to be absent is the nuanced relationship formed between learners being physically present.

With all this said, I’m discovering both digital and physical experiences matter and are essential to creating individualized experiences that are key to developing a love of learning. I’m realizing we need to make any tool that supports learning—whether it be physical and in person, or online and digital—available. And like many things in life, I’m understanding the answer to my questions is balance, and that it’s critical we continue to maintain this balance to keep any semblance of learning consistent for our children as we shift back toward normalcy in the future.

At the end of the (school) day and during these uncertain times, I do believe digital tools and platforms will be developed and used in ways that best support both the individuality of institution, educator and learner. I believe this event has provided us with perspective and a different vantage point from which to define real and relevant learning experiences. I believe new digital tools will be developed to move us closer to those physical experiences that are so important to our learning. But I also believe we will think much, much differently about the importance our physical environment plays in creating the meaningful and memorable learning experiences so critical to our future.

Read more perspectives on COVID-19 >