As teachers prepare for the start of a new school year, there is plenty of uncertainty and controversy over just what that re-opening will look like. One thing that does not seem to be much in doubt is that some measure of distance learning will still be needed. Whether districts decide to keep all students out of physical classrooms in school buildings, or to hold half-day sessions with the balance of the day being spent in distance learning environments at home, as some have suggested, distance learning will continue to be an important component of the education delivery protocol.
With this in mind, and with the opportunity of a fresh start as a new school year begins, it is helpful to take stock of best practices for this learning format at which many teachers and students are novices. It is good to remember that just as teachers are in need of training and experience with distance learning, students also need training and experience in learning under this format. Though the learning environment looks different online than in person, many of the best practices teachers have been using in classrooms are still needed online. Other best practices may have been practiced in the physical classroom, but now become more important in order to meet changing student needs.
Experienced teachers know the importance of teaching and practicing expectations and procedures at the beginning of the school year, and periodically throughout the school year. This is still true online. Students need to clearly understand what is expected of them. How should students budget their time online? Should they view steamed lessons for the duration of a school class period, or can they view it in shorter segments spread out over the day? Should they finish a writing assignment right after viewing the lesson, or is it okay to play a video game for an hour and then do the assignment just before supper? How should students submit written work? What software and format should be used? What time constraints and deadlines will there be on work? How do they get help from you or from a classmate if they need it? The potential flexibility of when lessons are viewed and assignments worked on can be an advantage for those who are challenged by long class periods and do better with numerous shorter work segments, but it can be a disadvantage for those who lack the self discipline to return to unfinished work, complete it, and submit it on time.
Unlike school days in a school building, students are not in an environment where they must be in an assigned place all day. At home, they may be under constraints which prevent them from working with a conventional school day schedule. A parent may be working from home and need the only computer for that work, or the child may be taken to a relative’s home when the parent leaves for work, dividing the day differently than with a usual departure on a school bus and day at school. With this in mind, online lessons that are intended to be viewed interactively and live should be recorded and made available for on-demand viewing, so that children who can not watch the live broadcast can view it later, and so students who need to can view it again to improve their understanding. Outlines of the lesson, lesson notes, possibly taken by an advanced student and then made available to others, and any hand-outs, articles and other resources and materials must also be made available online, either by e-mail, or download link.
One of the advantages of having students and teacher together in a physical classroom is that the teacher can monitor student understanding and learning. When there is confusion and the need for clarification, further instruction, or individualized instruction, the teacher can perceive the need and address the need promptly. With students physically separated from their teacher, and very possibly not present at live interactive sessions, this form of summative assessment is difficult to impossible. Because of this, what is a good idea in the physical classroom becomes a necessity in a distance learning environment, and that is collecting student feedback on the instruction. Online teachers should assess students’ understanding often, and ask them to provide feedback on how the process is working for them. Areas of difficulty can only be ironed out if the teacher is aware that it is not going well for particular students, and that desired learning is not taking place and will not be taking place until revisions to the format are made that better suit the student. It might be something as simple as dividing a lesson into three shorter segments instead of one long one, because that’s all the student can get in before interrupted by an infant sibling who is also home because the daycare center is closed.
If you were teaching in your classroom, you would want all of your students to be actively engaged in the lesson. You would use some strategies that are not available to you online, such as scanning the room and making eye contact with students, redirecting students attention, and providing interesting, relevant, engaging activities in which students participate to achieve a clearly understood goal. To the extent possible, active engagement should be utilized online as well. Students can have assignments that require them to interact with you and with each other through online messaging or chatting. When done through the distance learning software, student participation can be monitored, which encourages them to participate as required.
Lessons can also include narrated projects, where the teacher instructs students to get supplies (a ruler, a pencil, and a plain sheet of paper, for example), and then to follow step by step instructions using the supplies to complete a project. For music teachers, an introductory music composition project works well with this format. Students gather a pencil, an eraser, and print a sheet of music paper. Then they set their paper up with a treble clef at the beginning of each line, divide the first two lines into four measures each, and write a quarter note F to start the piece. From there, they follow further instructions to compose an eight measure melody.
Finally, stay in close communication with parents. Use class dojo to keep parents apprized of what their children are doing in school, how they are doing, and how the parents can facilitate what you are trying to accomplish. Many parents will still feel ill-equipped or reluctant to take on the role of their child’s teacher, so the more you can encourage them and equip them to do teacher things, the more successful the whole enterprise will be. If you can coach parents through some success teaching their child, you will deepen your relationship with those parents, which will be a great asset when their children return to your conventional classroom. And it will happen. One of these days.