COVID-19 has caused many in the higher education community to move their face-to-face lectures and meetings to Zoom or other online meeting platforms. While this approach may work well for higher ed or even high school students, can you imagine what that might look like for grade schoolers?
Some six- and seven-year-olds struggle to sit through dinner without leaving the table. Take away the food and give them a laptop that’s live streaming their math teacher’s lesson on place value. Think they’ll stay engaged for the length of a class period, let alone a series of class periods for Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies? It seems pretty implausible based on school-age children’s still-developing self-regulation skills.
Find Alternatives To Face-To-Face Learning
That may be among the reasons that United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) advises educators against using in their distance learning solutions any methodologies that require face-to-face communication. UNESCO also urges educators to be wary of asking parents to download and test a multitude of applications.
Instead, UNESCO recommends that educators use a blend of digital tools and media that the majority of students can access. On its website UNESCO published a list of 60 educational applications and platforms to help facilitate distance learning during this time. These include Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Platforms, collaboration platforms, mobile reading applications and self-directed learning content, and tools to create digital learning content. UNESCO notes that those on the list “have wide reach, a strong user-base and evidence of impact,” and many are free or support many languages. 
Embrace A Flipped Classroom/Blended Learning Strategy
Given the timeframe for educators to implement their distance learning programs and based on our experience building distance learning solutions for our clients, we suggest leveraging a prudent mix of these applications and tools to stand up a blended learning and flipped classroom strategy.
Blended learning solutions augment classroom instruction with a variety of online modalities, and learners have unlimited access to the content. A flipped classroom strategy delivers training content online or at home, and moves challenging activities and problem-solving to an instructor-led setting.
Central to this flipped classroom-blended learning strategy is a digital learning management system, like Google Classroom. Many educators already use a platform like this so that students can access lesson content and submit assignments at home.
Here’s an example of how it works: A fifth-grade teacher assigns a couple of Khan Academy mixed number math videos for students to watch, followed by online practice and a workbook assignment. At home, a student struggles to correctly solve the workbook assignment problems. That student or the parent requests messages the teacher asking for help. The teacher schedules and delivers one-on-one instruction to that student via a video conference tool like Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Skype. Or, after grading the workbook assignment a teacher identifies students who answered a number of questions incorrectly, and then schedules live-video sessions with those students to provide individualized support.
Use Video And Livestream Judiciously
For some educators, online content isn’t readily available to support their classroom curriculum. Those teachers may opt to video record their lectures or demonstrations, and then upload them to their Google Classroom or Schoology site.
Although this may seem like a no-brainer solution, there is a downside to using video. Teachers can assign videos for students to watch, but they may be unable to track whether students click on the video and watch it in its entirety. This is not to say that completion is the goal; it merely indicates that students are accessing the lesson. What’s important is that students engage with the video - and any other asynchronous solution - in a meaningful way so that learning occurs.
Although UNESCO cautions against this, using online collaboration tools may be the best solution for certain students and subject matter. Some teachers are repackaging lesson plans for the small screen. Based on our experience supporting our clients’ transition to virtual classrooms, we recommend piloting any strategy that uses an online video conferencing platform, like Zoom, to deliver short lessons to small groups of students. This micro approach enables educators to test how select platform features work with their lesson plans and their students. Taking small steps also helps learners adapt to their new, virtual classroom environment where the expectations for participation have significantly changed.
Monitor Student Progress
The big advantage of hosting live classes is that it allows educators to facilitate communication with and among students using audio, video, and chat functions. Educators can “see” students and verify that they are engaged and attentive during the lesson.
Luckily, this is not the only way educators can monitor student progress in a distance learning environment. Teachers who primarily deliver lessons asynchronously have other options for accomplishing this. They can design daily formative exercises, questions or quizzes for students to complete and submit - not necessarily for a grade, but for completion credit.
While this helps educators track student ‘participation’ in learning, it also helps them track student progress toward learning goals. Requesting and receiving bits of feedback like this can help educators adjust individual learning plans to help students gain proficiency in a particular skill.
Here are additional tips for monitoring student progress in distance learning environments:
- Keep an eye on virtual classrooms to supervise student progress during school hours
- Check what students submit in ‘real time’ and provide individual feedback on their work
- Use video chat tools like Google Hangouts so students can ask questions and receive feedback
- Take advantage of instant messaging tools like Google Talk so teachers have another way to reach out to students
Raise Your Communication Game
A key to ensuring students learn during this unprecedented time is maintaining continual communication with parents and guardians. They are more accountable for their student’s learning than ever before, and they need educators’ support.
In addition to repackaging lessons for their students to learn in a remote environment, teachers must now coach parents and caregivers on how to deliver, support, or oversee learning at home. This “train the trainer” support will vary depending on the grade level, subject level, and learning needs of the student.
Although the content of their messages to parents, guardians, and students will be different, the way educators communicate with their audience can be more uniform. Here are some tips educators can use to create a simple, repeatable plan to keep students and families engaged during distance learning:
- Ask families how to best communicate with them, e.g., email, phone call, social media posts, etc.
- Determine which channels you will use to distribute daily communications.
- Schedule a time each day to distribute these communications.
- Establish a consistent agenda and agenda items for these communications.
- Craft messages to fit the needs of parents and guardians.
- Keep messages clear, brief, and tailored so you can distribute them using all communications channels.
- Remind families you are doing your best to respond to the new and often changing information received during this time.
- Offer to be accessible and answer questions to the best of your ability and based on the information available to you.
- Thank families for their patience and understanding.
Prepare For Frequently Asked Questions
No matter what or how much educators communicate, families and caregivers will ask a lot of questions about supporting student learning during this school closure. As these questions come in, educators can use them to create a simple question and answer resource. A “self-help” resource like this provides students and families information they can retrieve on their own. Additionally, rerouting frequently asked questions helps educators use more of their time for supporting learning - which is what everyone wants.
Here’s how educators can gets started with their own Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) resource:
- Start capturing the questions parents, guardians and students ask
- Paste the questions and answers to the bottom of your email communications
- Build a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) resource as the list grows
- Post the FAQ resource online and insert a link to it in email communications
- Update FAQs regularly with answers to new questions you receive
- Encourage parents and guardians to review FAQs as updates are added
Already implementing a distance learning plan in your school or classroom? We’d love to hear how you’re facilitating learning in your community. Leave a comment below to share your thoughts with us.