Can you make learning away from you as effective as learning with you?

March 12, 2020

Can you make learning away from you as effective as learning with you?

Critical decisions and key strategies for maximizing remote learning

Making a decision about being out of school for an extended period is one that weighs heavily on leaders' minds. I have never known a school or district leader who took this responsibility lightly. But, unfortunately, this decision can be necessary when considering students' and teachers' health and safety.

Many schools already leverage some distance or virtual learning as a supplement to everyday classroom instruction, but while existing strategies and online platforms offer a place to start, there must be additional considerations if schools are closed for full days and weeks. Here are a few questions that must be addressed to ensure learning continues as uninterrupted as possible for every student:

  1. What will students do when they are out of school?
  2. How will students know what to do, and what is the communication protocol with them?
  3. How can you ensure learning "away from you" is as effective as learning "with you"?
  4. How will you address issues of equity across students' myriad situations?
  5. How are educators supported, and what are their communications protocols?

Providing concrete examples of how to address these questions is critical as teachers and school leaders plan for how these decisions will impact students. Sharing ideas about specific situations educators, students, and parents are likely to encounter will help to ensure stronger implementation. And, as much as possible, giving teachers opportunities to collaborate now to plan for a successful transition to remote learning – including asking for their input on these critical questions – develops buy-in and ensures the right steps are taken.

Critical Decision One:

What will students do when they are out of school?

One of the most impactful ways to use time away from school is to guide students toward work that requires them to take responsibility for their own learning, but to do so with feedback and support. This may look like self-paced learning modules or assignments, joining virtual lessons guided by teachers, or a combination of self-guided learning and small group or individual teacher support.

Here are a few suggestions of how to use this time wisely:

  1. Ensure that teachers have concrete learning plans that account for all students and that clearly articulate the new learning that students are expected to acquire. For students who receive additional services, ensure specialists and general education teachers are tightly coordinated.
  2. Establish instructional routines with parents/caretakers and students. Instructional routines could include: daily morning calls or video conferences to introduce the activities for the day and/or deliver new learning, dissemination of detailed daily or weekly agendas to parents and students that articulate the activities and assignments for each day and how to access any necessary materials, standard activities that are completed every day with different content, and so on.
  3. Provide students with practice and time in areas that support the instructional shifts required by more rigorous standards, and tell them the standards that each assignment addresses. For example, provide students with time for text dependent analysis. This can be most useful when using texts and articles covering various content areas, and we would encourage teachers to develop a text dependent analysis prompt for each assigned text. Teachers need to make sure the questions focus on depth of knowledge (DOK) level 1-3 responses and align to the DOK level of their grade-level standards.
    1. For elementary and middle school, EPIC! and NEWSELA are online digital content libraries where students can access a wide range of books and news articles. Teachers could spend time now setting up their "classrooms," choosing specific books or articles, leveling the selections for individual students as needed, and developing quizzes and assignments to use inside or outside the platform.
  4. Utilize sites, such as your existing LMS or online sites like Khan Academy and DESMOS to push out assignments and projects. Teachers can begin to vet these tools and set up ahead of time.
  5. Leverage video conferencing technology, where possible, to set up small group sessions for guided reading, shared writing, and/or collaborative tasks. The ZOOM platform can be used to facilitate whole and small group learning.
  6. Identify strategies for keeping students engaged while outside of the classroom. Many students struggle to be in front of a screen for an entire day. Consider assignments that encourage students to play games, draw, read, or move, for example, and then have them upload photos or videos of their work.

Critical Decision Two:

How will students know what to do and what is the communication protocol with them?

Students need to have clear expectations about communication, how much time they are expected to spend on their education each day, what they will be expected to accomplish, and guidance for any online sessions or interactions. The more clear and specific teachers can be in their initial directions, expectations for student work, and guidance on how to ask for help, the more successful students will be in working remotely.

These are some strategies for strong communications:

  1. Establish regular communications routines and channels that are consistent across all teachers so families and students know when and where to expect to receive assignments and critical information. This may include email, Skype, text, or the use of platforms such as Moodle or Blackboard as a central place for schools to communicate with students and parents.
  2. Create assignment templates and checklists to support teachers in including all critical information in their communications. Consider encouraging teachers to develop weekly documents and/or daily planners for families and students that include quick summaries of the activities for the week and/or day.
  3. Ensure district/school leaders have updated contact information for all parents and students.
  4. Establish or utilize a centralized email and phone number for parents and students to contact if they are worried they are not receiving information on assignments.
  5. Coordinate communication with other community partners (e.g., food pantries, libraries, community centers, houses of worship) to increase visibility of important information.
  6. Provide exemplars, rubrics, and criteria to help students and their caregivers understand expectations.
  7. Provide training, resources, and context for families on what to expect and how they can support their students. This may include providing information on what applications parents may need to download for their students, although the school and district should aim to limit the number of new applications to prevent families and students from feeling overwhelmed. This could also include encouraging families to establish regular "school" routines/schedules, ensuring there is quiet space without distractions like TVs or siblings, monitoring device usage to ensure students stay focused on academic work, and dedicated time for the whole family to read together.

Critical Decision Three:

How can you ensure learning "away from you" is as effective as learning "with you"?

Students need different amounts of direct instruction to advance in their learning, and scaffolding support for students who need additional guidance and 1:1 teaching will be critical.

Here are some ideas for delivering high-quality, differentiated instruction in a virtual space:

  1. Establish a dedicated site (e.g., Moodle or Google Classroom) where teachers can house all resources needed for lessons, including videos of the educators teaching components of the lessons as well as worksheets or other handouts. This may include the concept of "flipping the classroom" and/or the use of a free platform such as Flipgrid to engage students in learning and discussion using smartphones, tablets, and/or computers. By having teachers provide the video content, all students still have access to the learning facilitated/provided by the teacher.
  2. Leverage video conferencing technology or phone calls to follow up with specific students on new learning, both individually and in small groups.
  3. Establish "office hours" when students can reach out to teachers for help in completing specific assignments and the communication channel(s) through which to reach out.
  4. Push students to go further and engage their next level of analysis. Think about what would be somewhere between instructional and independent levels for your students. Stay away from something that might frustrate learners. Activities and assignments that build on prior learning may be a great way to engage students in learning opportunities at home, and the privacy of learning outside the classroom may encourage some students to try out tasks they would not otherwise do in front of their peers.
  5. Add opportunities for students to choose how to engage with and demonstrate their learning.
  6. Differentiate assignments for specific students based on individual student learning needs.
  7. Carefully monitor student work and data, and develop plans to address areas of need.
  8. Establish norms for providing regular feedback to students on assignments, including how quickly students will expect to receive feedback and through what channel (e.g., call, email, voice comments, chat message, text, etc.). Consider what channels might be most accessible for different students and vary the assignments so that students have the opportunity to receive frequent feedback.

Critical Decision Four:

How will you address issues of equity across students' myriad situations?

Students have varying access to WiFi and devices, quiet space to work, food and health services, and childcare. Some may have siblings they are expected to care for when they are at home, others may have no adults around during the work day, and others may have additional health or safety issues at home. There is a very real risk that achievement gaps can widen when students are at home for extended periods if they cannot access an environment that is conducive for learning.

Ensuring equity could look like:

  1. Survey families to better understand technology access and support for virtual learning. This information will help the school know which students may need alternate arrangements or additional supports. Prioritize selecting assignments and online solutions that are accessible via smartphones, but consider alternative options, as needed, such as providing hotspots, lending laptops, or offering print materials available for pickup or drop-off at local community centers.
  2. Design assignments to minimize the need for family members or parents to provide direct support or instruction to students in order for students to complete them.
  3. Coordinate with community partners (e.g., food pantries, libraries, community centers, houses of worship) to help meet myriad needs that students may face in light of school closures.
  4. Create a plan for students who have individual education plans (IEPs) to meet their specific accommodations, including video access to aides and logins for applications. Ensure that specialists are collaboratively planning and coordinating with general education teachers to meet the needs of all students.

Critical Decision Five:

How are educators supported, and what are their communications protocols?

To state the obvious, virtual learning is a different medium than classroom instruction, and some teachers may be more comfortable with what it requires: texting and/or chatting with students, using different apps and platforms, leveraging different virtual teaching strategies, using video cameras, and so on. Teachers also face similar equity challenges when they are away from school, with differing access to high-speed internet, different childcare or senior care responsibilities, and different home environments.  

Supporting educators in the transition to virtual learning may look like:

  1. Determine modes of communication and interaction with educators in advance of virtual learning.
  2. Establish regular check-in calls led by the principal to talk with faculty and staff, gather feedback, share strategies that are working, and problem-solve. Small team calls led by teacher leaders may also be beneficial.
  3. Create an inventory of current curricular resources, subscriptions, and technology platforms, and explore web-based functionality, resources, and activities that those providers might have. Determine what, if anything, needs to be purchased. With this information, share guidance for educators around available tools to facilitate planning, developing, and monitoring virtual instruction.
  4. Identify a response team or teams to manage key aspects: overall response, communications with families and staff, instructional delivery, academic supports, and equity.
  5. Provide training, resources, and support to teachers so they can become familiar with virtual learning tools, ideally ahead of time. Each teacher can then begin to create a virtual learning plan that outlines what major assignments and instruction from their classroom could look like in an online environment and receive feedback from their peers.
  6. Team specific teachers by grade level or content area to co-plan and develop activities and assignments for students. This can help mitigate the challenges that teachers face transitioning to a different style of instruction as well as provide support systems for teachers. Potentially, allow teacher leaders to "observe" their peers' virtual classes and provide regular feedback.
  7. Set expectations for how teachers who share students (e.g., grade 7 math, science teachers, P.E. teachers, art teachers, etc.) will be expected to coordinate and collaborate so that students are accessing the necessary information from all teachers but not becoming overwhelmed.
  8. Ensure teachers have virtual access to key student work and assessment data to target student learning needs.
  9. Outline how much time teachers should spend on virtual feedback, communicating with students, and checking in with students' progress.
  10. Identify resources and extra technical support if teachers, families, or students face challenges with different solutions.

Making these critical decisions can support teachers and students during a time when the resolve to keep learning can provide calm and continuity. While much will need to be considered and adjusted in the moment, addressing these questions as early as possible will go a long way in setting up successful remote learning.