An educator with distance learning experience shares what he’s learned: During the pandemic, keep it simple and include as much contact as possible.
The coronavirus has resulted in widespread school closures for an unknown period of time. Teachers are scrambling to find ways to help students who live far away via distance and online learning. You are not alone if you are feeling overwhelmed by this daunting task.
I’ve also had difficulty reaching out to students outside of class. For many years, I taught in communities where students struggled to attend school on a regular basis. To assist absent students in accessing my courses, I created a blended, self-paced, mastery-based instructional model that enabled all of my students to learn regardless of whether they were in my classroom or not. I now run The Modern Classrooms Project, where I assist other teachers in doing the same.
I’ve learned a lot about how to effectively create and implement digital instruction and self-paced learning by teaching students and training educators. I’ll share a few pointers below, and if you want to learn more about developing effective distance learning beyond what I’ve covered in this article, check out the resources on our website or enroll in our free online course, Building Modern Classrooms.
Here are some suggestions to help you create a long-term and engaging distance learning experience for your students.
1. SIMPLICITY IS KEY
Every teacher has experienced the frustration of having to explain new instructions to their students. It usually begins with a whole-group walk-through, followed by an onslaught of student questions to clarify next steps. While this process can be frustrating at times, students can always rely on one another and the teacher in the room for help.
One of the difficulties of distance learning is that you and your students are no longer in the same room to address misconceptions collectively. Instead, the vast majority of learning time will inevitably be consumed by tasks requiring a high level of self-direction.
As a result, simplicity is essential. Distance learning experiences must be designed with very clear instructions and only one or two resources. When possible, it’s also best to provide resources like readings as PDFs that students can always access.
Keep in mind that even simple structures can necessitate meticulous work: As students figure out what to do within defined parameters, tasks with few instructions frequently result in the most higher-order thinking. Distance learning should encourage educators to consider how they can deliver new information in a leaner and more concise manner.
2. ESTABLISH A DIGITAL HOME BASE
It’s critical to have a digital home base for your students in the spirit of simplicity. This can be a learning management system provided by the district, such as Canvas or Google Classrooms, or it can be a self-created class website. Google Sites is a simple, easy-to-use platform that I recommend.
You require a centralized digital platform where your students can always find the most recent and up-to-date information. It can be tempting to switch between all of the cool edtech applications available, especially since so many of them are currently offering free services, but simplicity and familiarity are invaluable. Students must feel at ease going to the same location to access the same tools. The greater your distance from your students, the more important.
Furthermore, if attendance was a problem before, distance learning will exacerbate it. When students fall out of the loop, they need somewhere to go. Filling in the gaps will become even more difficult if the teacher is unable to quickly engage in individual or small group instruction. Your students will need to take charge of their own learning. Your goal is to establish a clear framework that will allow them to do so. You might want to look at a probability and statistics unit I created to see how I provided instructions and set up checkpoints for my students.
3. PRIORITIZE LONGER, STUDENT-DRIVEN ASSIGNMENTS
When designing distance learning experiences, efficiency is critical. Planning will take more time and will necessitate a high level of attention to detail. When children are disengaged, you will be unable to make quick corrections or pivot.
To effectively manage your time and sanity, prioritize longer, student-driven assignments and tasks that give you time to plan future units while also getting your students off the computer. Concentrate on long-term projects that give students autonomy and a clear set of checkpoints and deadlines to meet. Create opportunities for students to discuss what they’re learning with their families whenever possible, and include an element of student choice to truly build engagement.
Check out Demographer Challenge, a project created by Modern Classrooms co-founder Robert Barnett that combines choice and family engagement.
4. INDIVIDUAL TOUCHPOINTS ARE GAME-CHANGERS
The human connection fostered in your classroom is what your students will miss the most. The small interactions you have with them in the hallways, before and after class, or during lesson breaks are priceless. While it may be tempting to focus on content in your distance learning assignments and instructional videos, creating structures for personalized touchpoints with your students is more important.
You can create these touchpoints in a variety of ways, including emails, video messages, phone calls, messages through your learning management system, comments on shared documents, and so on. Create and adhere to a structure. Your students will notice your investment and realize how much you care about them.
It is critical to remember that cultivating an engaging distance learning experience is difficult. It takes time and a great deal of patience. If you’re new to the experience, you’ll probably feel like a first-year teacher all over again. That’s fine! Take the challenges one at a time, keep your students updated on your progress, and maintain a positive attitude. You’ve got this!