Making the Best of Distance Learning
I have written before about digital disruption and the future of teaching and learning online. With the current pandemic and school closures, we are facing uncertain times in education. Many schools are confronting the necessity to keep students engaged and learning at home. Then there’s the issues with equity in regards to student access to devices and broadband internet. Instead of focusing on what some schools don’t have, this article explores the possibilities of what educators can do.
Communication is Key
The University of Michigan’s Center for Innovation recommends that instructors set up communication in times of emergency immediately with learners. This helps ease any uncertainties and provides needed guidance early on (University of Michigan, 2020). Another suggestion is to inform the learners how often you will communicate (University of Michigan, 2020). In an elementary and secondary setting, it is advised to communicate this directly to parents and guardians of students. For example, you may inform parents and guardians that you will post assignments and school updates every Monday. This gives families a clear idea of how often they should expect communication from their child’s instructor. Additionally, don’t forget to reach out to the community to share any changes that may affect the learning opportunities for students, as well as inform them of any resources available to them from the district, such as meal pickups at school locations.
Maintaining interactions with students are also essential in times of an emergency. Farrah (2020) calls these “individual touchpoints,” which are connections that don’t involve academics or school. Rather these interactions are meant to check on students' socio-emotional well being. Teachers can initiate and maintain these interactions by sharing videos to posting encouraging messages for their students on an LMS, which is a Learning Management System (Farrah, 2020). Gonser (2020) also recommends daily check-ins via Schoology. There she has students post a thumbs up to show they are doing well, a sideways thumb for so-so, and a thumbs down if they’re having a bad day (Gonser, 2020). It’s important to have a space for students to check in with their emotions and how they are feeling. Gonser (2020) also offers other ideas to check in daily with students such as posting daily morning announcements, reading alouds, and having students respond to a daily prompt. Moreover, these gestures let students know that you care about them and their well being. These strategies also offer a space for students to process their emotions during a difficult time.
Some tools that can be useful during emergency situations are Remind, SchoolStatus, and Class Dojo. While Remind and Class Dojo offer free accounts for educators, SchoolStatus is something that requires a district account. With these platforms, educators have the ability to send pertinent information and documents via text and/or email. This offers real-time communication with parents and families and also provides teachers with a one-stop shop to store their contacts for easy access. If you don’t already have one of these accounts, I strongly recommend you add Remind or Class Dojo to your family communication toolkit.
Keep It Simple
When shifting to remote learning, please make the transition as simple as possible. This means that you as administrator and teacher should use tools and resources that are already in place in your school or district. Farah (2020) urges that teachers start with the familiar because it provides a consistent environment for students. This is especially important towards maintaining some sense of normalcy for both educators and learners.
One way to keep it simple for schools is to use existing tools for communication. If you are a Google School District for example, you already have access to many tools like gmail, Google Meets, Google Hangouts, and Google Drive to share, access, and communicate. Our district is currently taking advantage of Google Hangouts and Meets to hold their weekly faculty meetings remotely and to share expectations and procedures with the faculty. If you as a principal or administrator and haven’t taken advantage of these tools, I encourage you to explore them.
Just as video conferencing tools can be used among teachers and faculty, these same tools can be used for instructional purposes. The advantage of utilizing district google accounts is that they are usually more secure as long as you don’t share the link to specific calls publicly. This means that you will not receive unwanted “visitors” or other users attempting to log into your call. Before scheduling calls with students, it is also important to establish guidelines or expectations for communication. This can be done by posting a list of rules or expectations for students on your existing LMS and by reviewing those expectations at the beginning of your conference call with students. It should be noted that Google is currently making some changes to GSuite Education Accounts in Google Meets to ensure that meeting creators have more control during and after calls. Some of these changes include: allowing meeting creators to mute and or remove participants from a call and not allowing participants to re-enter a call once the final participant has left (GSuite Updates Blog, 2020). For more information on updates to expect in Google Meet, visit the GSuite Updates Blog.
Continued use of an LMS or Learning Management Systems as digital hubs is also helpful as you transition to remote learning. Farah (2020) recommends establishing a “digital homebase” or an LMS where the teacher can post updates and pertinent information for students. While some school districts utilize Google Classroom, others have access to Schoology or Canvas. Farrah (2020) further suggests that teachers simplify by using what students are already familiar with and limiting the tools to as little as a couple. Moreover, attaching pdfs of instructions that students can revisit for guidance at their own time is highly recommended (Farah, 2020). By keeping instructional expectations simple, teachers will create a consistent environment for students to transition to.
Another issue to consider during this transition to remote learning is student privacy. As many districts are making the shift, more and more educational technology companies are offering their services to educators specifically. While many of these new tools may seem enticing, educators must be cautious in protecting the privacy of users, who will also be their own students. Common Sense Media (2018) suggests that educators should consider the following factors before implementing a new technology tool: 1) Will the tool be relevant and age appropriate for my classroom?, 2) Will the tool be compliant with your district’s technology policies and be compatible with the existing network in your district?, 3) Is the tool in compliance with FERPA and COPA policies, and 4) Are you as a user able to control or disable sharing users’ personal information? Taking into account all of these questions is a great start to vetting tech tools for your classroom. You can also explore Common Sense Media’s Privacy Program for evaluations of privacy practices found among commonly used educational tech tools. Another great resource to read more in-depth about student privacy issues is the Educator’s Guide to Student Data Privacy (Gallagher, K., et. al, 2019)
Getting Started with Remote Learning
After you have selected the LMS you will use and a communication plan with students, the last step is to plan how you will organize your instructional materials for students. With the rush to go online, it is best to keep instruction simple and concise for learners. Farrah (2020) brings up the fact that with remote learning, teachers and students are not in the same physical space to clear up any misunderstandings or questions that may arise on the spot. This poses as a challenge for both instructors and learners. This is why it is so important to keep all assignments short and concise and to limit misinterpretations. I recommend “chunking instruction,” which means including only the essential materials and preferably positioning these in one shared place like a single post or a shared digital folder. The goal is also to make instruction “bite-sized,” and short to maintain learners’ focus and make tasks more manageable. For example, don’t post 3-4 YouTube videos on the same topic. Instead, find or make one that has most of the information you want to deliver in about 5-10 minutes long.
Encouraging student creation should be at the forefront of remote learning. Many times teachers are tempted to post a myriad of websites or videos. However, these types of resources focus mostly on the consumption of information and don’t push students to use the information in meaningful ways. On the flip side, other teachers want to give their students more choice by posting learning boards or menus, which can easily overwhelm students with countless options. Housand (2020) stresses that while many choice boards and learning menus may have well intentions, they often offer too many options. Less is more, when it comes to designing and encouraging students to participate in remote learning (Housand 2020). Moreover, activities should be engaging and push students to create relevant and meaningful learning experiences. For example, in his presentation on Choice, Curiosity, Creativity, and Critical Thinking he introduces the Coloring Curiosity Challenge and which is an activity where students find images in their immediate surroundings that include different colors. This task can be completed by having students upload their own pictures under a shared digital grid that outlines each color under a column. He then encourages teachers to discuss what patterns appear in the submissions, have students guess who may have uploaded each image, and further tie this to other content areas such as reading and history. Activities like these push students to look at their surroundings a bit closer as well as apply more critical and creative ways of thinking.
This current pandemic has pushed schools to move to remote learning as a way to connect and provide an education to students across the country. Luckily for us, we live in an era where technology can helps us communicate with our colleagues, learners and their families as well as deliver a range of instruction. That said, we must be careful about selecting the tools we use in order to protect student privacy as well as not overwhelm our learners as they too transition to remote learning. Simplifying and outlining expectations and resources will assist our learners and their families in this process. Finally, let’s not forget to check in with our students’ social and emotional well being on a consistent basis. We will get through this. Your students will get through this. We got this.
For more information, please check out The Distance Learning Readiness Kit produced by Schoology.
Common Sense. (n.d.). Common Sense Privacy Program. Retrieved from https://privacy.commonsense.org/
Farah, K. (2020, March 20). 4 Tips for Teachers Shifting to Online Teaching. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/4-tips-supporting-learning-home
Gallagher, K., Magid, L. & Pruitt, K. (2019). The Educator’s Guide to Student Privacy. Retrieved from https://www.connectsafely.org/eduprivacy/?doing_wp_cron=1585770338.0661590099334716796875
Garton, S. (2018, September 18). Privacy In the Classroom: Why Should I Care? Retrieved from https://www.commonsense.org/education/articles/privacy-in-the-classroom-why-should-i-care
Gosner, S. (2020, March 25). 7 Ways to Maintain Relationships During Your School Closure. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/7-ways-maintain-relationships-during-your-school-closure
GSuite (2020, March 19). Hangouts meet improvements for remote learning [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://gsuiteupdates.googleblog.com/2020/03/hangouts-meet-edu-updates.html?m=1
Housand, B. (2020). Choice, Curiosity, Creativity, and Critical Thinking in the Days of COVID-19. Retrieved from https://www.brianhousand.com/spring2020.html
University of Michigan (2020). Getting Started With Teaching Remotely in an Emergency. Retrieved from https://crlt.umich.edu/getting-started-teaching-remotely-emergency