Online Learning

3 Ideas to Help Teachers Thrive This Year

A national survey provides insights for how teachers can keep improving while teaching in distance and hybrid learning classrooms.

February 11, 2021
ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

As a former middle school math teacher and now father of three young children, I know this has probably been the most challenging school year in history. The world is still far from getting back to normal.

In the second half of the pandemic school year, how should teachers move forward? Last fall, a national survey project collected data from K–12 teachers as well as school and district administrators to gauge what instruction looks like this year. Here are three tips drawn from survey-data insights that can help teachers to not just survive but hopefully thrive through the rest of this school year.

Pushing Past Conventional Approaches

The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of educational technologies. But experience and know-how about using those technologies to their greatest advantage has not been so easy to transplant. Survey results revealed that 42 percent of teachers started the school year with a version of remote learning that resembled a conventional school day’s worth of synchronous instruction (i.e., teaching live from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. over Zoom, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams). Replicating a regular school day online, however, is not the best approach to online learning.

To put things in perspective, there is often a lag between when new technologies get adopted and when people figure out the best ways to put those technologies to use. For example, after factories were hooked up to electrical power in the early 1900s, it took 30 years for factory managers to figure out how to use electricity to boost productivity. Similarly, many of the first movies were basically stage productions captured on film, and early automobiles resembled horseless buggies. It often takes multiple iterations of experimentation for the pioneers in a field to fully realize advantages new technologies have to offer.

When the 2020–21 school year started, there were so many challenges for educators that the practical path forward was to stick to tried-and-true methods as much as possible. However, it’s now a good time for educators to begin discovering new ways to leverage what online learning does and doesn’t have to offer. For example, instead of covering material primarily through live video calls, consider creating online lessons that students can access on-demand, and focus the bulk of online class time on solving problems or discussing topics in breakout groups.

Discovering Student-Centered Resources and Practices

Many teachers are already exploring innovative approaches to online instruction. A large majority of surveyed teachers (79 percent) reported that they’ve discovered new resources or practices that they plan to continue using after the pandemic. When a follow-up question in the survey asked respondents to describe the resources and practices they plan to keep using, many noted tools for creating their own online lesson materials—like Pear Deck, Nearpod, and Edpuzzle—and for managing online content and assignments using tools such as Google Classroom.

Adopting these resources doesn’t automatically transform instructional practices. But after making the leap to figure out these new resources, the path to more student-centered practices becomes much more incremental and easy. Here’s how that pathway can unfold: At first, teachers might use online instructional tools just to improve how they deliver lessons over live video—for example, adding visuals to their lessons, administering quizzes online, and distributing assignment materials. But once teachers have their lessons and materials in a digital format, it isn’t hard to record and post those resources so that students who are absent or who need extra review can access them.

With materials available on-demand, teachers are one small step away from flipping instruction completely: reserving face-to-face time for discussions, practice problems, or collaboration on projects while directing students to learn foundational content by watching lessons on their own. When lessons and activities are posted online, individually paced and mastery-based learning becomes much more manageable.

Getting Professional Development in Manageable Chunks

Survey responses also revealed that teachers who received effective professional development (PD) and were familiar with online tools were more confident than their colleagues. The survey asked teachers “How well are you currently able to serve your students?” with response options ranging from 0 (very poorly) to 100 (extremely well). The average response was 62. Yet for the subsets of teachers who felt confident with online tools and who felt they had received effective PD, the average response was nearly 10 points higher (70 and 71 respectively).

A number of online PD resources make it easier to learn student-centered practices for online remote learning. Organizations such as Modern Classrooms Project provide some great online PD on mastery-based, student-paced instruction.

Competency-based micro-credentials also make it easy to take incremental steps toward student-centered practices. Digital Promise hosts micro-credentials from organizations such as Modern Classrooms Project, Institute for Personalized Learning, Friday Institute at NC State, and more that can help educators learn the ins and outs of online student-centered learning. Likewise, BloomBoard offers micro-credentials designed by Ready to Blend specifically for student-centered teaching. ISTE has curated a list of free tools and resources at Learning Keeps Going, including an educator help desk where educators can ask experts about best practices for online learning.

These are challenging times, for sure. But they can also be times of opportunity for educators who focus on making the most of their circumstances. Given the fact that the global pandemic has pushed much of learning online, teachers owe it to their students to learn how to make the most of online learning.

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