7 Principles of Effective Distance Learning
A few weeks ago, Glen Irvin, Instructional Coach at Sauk Rapids-Rice Public Schools, was generous enough to spend an hour talking about how his district created a distance learning plan for their students. He had the luxury, or misfortune, of creating a distance learning plan nearly two years ago—well before the COVID-19 school closures—in order to handle schools closed due to inclement weather, such as snow days. We thought now would be a good time to share Glen’s 7 principles for an effective virtual learning plan.
1. Get A Sense of Your Students’ Distance Learning Capabilities
Start by doing an audit of your school community’s technological capabilities. Sauk Rapids-Rice did this via a survey to students, parents, and local municipalities. This lets you know, not only who does and doesn’t have WiFi at home, but also who has other capabilities. Maybe they have cell phones with a robust service provider or community access at a local library. Either way, knowing what technology your students can access gives you a critical starting point for creating a realistic distance learning plan.
2. Work with State and Local Agencies
Your distance learning plan shouldn’t just be for the short-term but should be something you can build on in the future. That’s why working with state and local agencies is paramount to ensuring your plan is successful. This can be a negative if you are out of compliance but can also be a positive for funding. Most states either have resources or are creating budgets to assist with distance learning. If you aren’t sure how to get started with the conversations, we’ve put together a CARES Act resources guide to help.
3. Provide Consistent E-learning Training Plan for Teachers
As Glen says, “we knew that we needed to properly train our educators. We knew that face-to-face instruction and even blended instruction isn't the same as being able to completely deliver an online product—to be able to do e-learning.”
Start with measurable outcomes. Make sure that you are developing materials and activities for a specific measurable outcome related to a specific standard. As Sauk Rapids-Rice approached training, they made sure that their educators knew that students learn online in a very different manner than they do in person. Things that most of us take for granted when teaching in person are things that need to be well thought out when moving to distance learning. Things like:
- Chunking information within a lesson to make it easily digestible
- Creating student choice and voice
- Ensuring a system for timely feedback of how students are doing
- Including time for reflection
4. Remember that Online Doesn’t Mean Less. It Means Different.
A big piece of feedback Glen got when creating the plan was that teachers felt that what they were doing online wasn’t as good as what they could do face-to-face. I think Glen described it perfectly:
Just because you're doing something online doesn't mean that it's less than what you could have done face-to-face. It just means that you need to adjust, and it's going to be different. My former director of technology here at Sauk Rapids-Rice talked about how you may not be able to do what you were going to do, but that doesn't mean that it's going to be less, you know, as far as the expectations and the outcomes. It just means that that specific lesson made, you may need to put a hold on that for a face-to-face lesson versus an online environment.
5. Spend More Time on Lesson Prep
Teachers should be prepared to spend more time planning and structuring online lessons than in face-to-face sessions. Making sure you have clear, precise instructions will ensure that students can easily engage in planned activities. Those directions should come in a variety of formats, as Glen says, “not only would I type out all the directions to my Schoology assignments, but I would record a video where I explained those in my voice as well."
You should also allow your teachers to decide on synchronous versus asynchronous delivery of their lessons. Synchronous delivery means that you schedule a specific time when your students will meet online to get direct instruction; whereas asynchronous delivery is when a teacher prerecords all of the various instructional elements, and then the students interact with those on their own schedule. Glen points out that it isn’t an all or nothing approach. “You may end up having both of those situations happen depending upon what the lesson is and what our educators are trying to do. But being able to teach those two methods synchronous and asynchronous is super important.”
6. Teach Students Self-Advocacy
Preparing our students for e-learning is vital—not just on the technology and new schedules but on things like self-advocacy. Students who are used to being called on will need to adjust to the new methodology. “Previously, they might've raised their hand in class or said something aloud. But in the virtual environment it's either uncomfortable, or they just don't know if they can actually ask these specific types of questions. So, we need to help them become self-advocates and make sure that they understand that it's important for them to ask those questions,” advises Glen.
Take time to practice using the technology with your students. Although we sometimes assume that students pick up on technology quickly, we should still train them on how to access the materials, how to effectively engage with materials, and the expectations for the activities being provided for them.
7. Simplify Your Communication Streams
With so much information being shared, it‘s important to have a single place to bring together communication district-wide. At Sauk Rapids-Rice Public Schools, they use Schoology to ensure everyone has a single place to go to for information, messaging, and updates.
Basically, the key component to our entire plan is Schoology. It is the hub for all communication, not only our educators and our students, but our parents know that this is the environment where our educators are going to live in and where they can go in and access them. And our administrators know that this is where we can pass on messages for the administrative level to our educators or even to district-wide messages. And it's so vital for all of us to know that there is with certainty that there's a place where all of us are going to be communicating it. And it's like I said, it's the central hub of all of our communications and, obviously, where all of our content delivery and our instruction will happen.
If you want to get all of Glen’s advice, you can listen to the full webinar here.