When I joined an online driver’s ed class midway through August, I was wary of how well the class would work. After all, my past two experiences with online learning had been less than ideal – I have learned more from the homework than the actual online lectures. So I wondered: could this online, 90-plus-person class possibly prepare me enough to pass the Knowledge Test in five months and to physically drive?
My fears were unfounded. Three weeks after starting the course, I passed the final multiple-choice exam easily. But as I inched my way through the parking lot, my very first time behind the wheel, I started wondering – how different was my experience compared with pre-pandemic times?
First, a little context. Driving schools provide students with thirty hours of classroom training, five one-hour behind-the-wheel drives, drive observations, and opportunities to take the state Knowledge, Vision, and Road tests, all of which have experienced at least some change due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While classroom instruction has been shifted online, drives and tests must still be conducted in-person.
For the online classes, I found that curriculum and standards have remained the same, as required by state guidelines. Though I was able to learn well in the online environment, many other students struggled – when called on in class, some did not answer, had no idea which question we were on, nor had any idea of the answer.
I talked to Cory Dearborn, owner of the 911 Driving School in Redmond, who told me that “student participation is way down, student confusion is way up, over different things. The quality of the education is much better when you’re in person, compared to online. We have more people failing the final test, the state Knowledge Test, compared to what we had before.”
Similar with remote learning in schools, another major part of the problem is the difficulty for instructors to see whether students are even paying attention, since cameras are off, and lack of engagement can be confused with technical issues.
J.C. Fawcett, owner of Defensive Driving School, told me he recognizes the limitations of virtual learning, and that “at some point, it’s our job to provide the content, and if you’re choosing to abstain and walk away, that’s on you.” And after all, the level of engagement and understanding will reveal itself when the student gets on the road for the driving portion and take the state tests.
Aside from learning the content, something else I noticed in my class was the shear amount of time spent taking attendance. The state requires attendance be taken three times per class, and with the increased class size for these virtual sessions, we spent about half an hour per class just calling out names.
The fact that we spent 20% of class time taking attendance was concerning to me, so I talked to 911 Driving School, the program through which I took my driving course. Dearborn told me that “we reduced, typically, the amount of breaks you get…And we made sure that, in each class, that you still had everything that was in the normal class.”
Meanwhile, at SWERVE Driving School, I learned that instructor Haven Scholz had a great solution for easy attendance-taking. She said that “rather than calling out each name individually, we have the students raise their hands in the Zoom meeting [all at once], and then we call the names of those without hands raised.”
At Defensive Driving School, Fawcett had another work-around.
“We would put up poll questions, and we would use those questions for our attendance,” he said. “And you can actually pull spreadsheets out, and you can see who was logged on and for how long.”
Students who missed a class still must make up the session, just as they would pre-COVID.
Another change from pre-pandemic times is that the state allowed driving schools to waive deadlines for completing drives and tests, in case students are not comfortable completing these requirements in-person. As for me, I have completed one test and zero school-based drives so far, partially because of I have felt uneasy about meeting an instructor inside the close confines of a car, but also because I would like more practice with my father, and I have been procrastinating. I do not do well when there are no deadlines.
For the driving schools, removing deadlines has been a blessing in disguise, allowing for greater flexibility in scheduling students for drives. Fawcett told me that “we’re still pretty backed up because being completely shut down for two and a half months meant that we had a backlog of students starting to form.” Driving schools will begin to enforce deadlines once the situation improves, and once that backlog decreases.
Without doing practice drives through the driving school, I have mostly been learning from my father, which is not much of a change compared to what would typically happen before COVID-19.
“We really see ourselves as more of the assistant coach, with the parent being the head coach,” Fawcett said.
Drives with the instructor are meant to correct bad behaviors and teach concepts parents might not feel comfortable teaching, but the bulk of the training, and 50+ hours of driving practice, come from parental instruction.
The state’s Department of Licensing now has the ability to conduct live online classes during a state of emergency. However, the path forward still remains uncertain. Unless the state extends the current emergency order, all driving classes will return to being in-person by the end of November.
So until we reach that sci-fi future where everything is done online, and you can have holographic meetings to replicate the experience of in-person instruction, my online experience in learning to drive will just be another irregularity brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.