When you can’t bring your students to the place, bring the place to your students.
During the pandemic, places that provided in-person educational experiences for students were forced to shutter, but the need for what they provided didn’t disappear. In fact, they were more important than ever because they reminded students cloistered at home that the wider world was still out there and that there were still ways for them to experience it.
As a result, distance learning programs offered by informal educational organizations like museums and zoos grew in number. And when in-person learning resumed, many continued to offer these popular programs because the infrastructure essential to creating them remained in place.
There are many groups that offer distance learning programs, but those offered by the National Park Service are among the highest quality. This is due in large part to their design, but also to how they suggest classroom teachers integrate them into their units and projects. Having had the opportunity to work alongside many providers of distance learning, I discovered that there are a number of things teachers can do to improve the effectiveness of these programs.
How to Structure a Distance Learning Experience
1. Make clear connections to the curriculum. It’s important that programs make clear connections to real learning goals or standards that teachers are expected to address. Aligning the program to the learning goals and framing specific projects or units within your curriculum ensure that distance learning is a relevant and meaningful experience. Make sure to look for programs with strong curricular connections.
Some places anticipate this need, like the programs offered at Channel Islands National Park, which clearly outline the standards that are addressed. But if you find an opportunity that doesn’t clearly list the standards, just ask. Sometimes the facilitator can adjust their plan to accommodate a specific request.
Also, be sure not to judge a book by its cover. Sometimes, the title of the program might not be a good indicator of the content. For example, Hot Springs National Park offers “Bathtub Time Machine”—a very creative title that belies the program’s strong historic and equity content.
2. There is power in a phone call. Thanks to the widespread adoption of videoconferencing technology during the pandemic, more and more places have the capability to deliver distance learning programs. If you find a museum or park that would be a good fit for your next unit, call and ask if they would be willing to talk with your students for 30 minutes, even if they don’t have an official offering.
Sometimes, you’ll find a willing educator or curator who will offer to conduct a video chat on their personal phone in a gallery or exhibit that fits your needs (shout-out to the rangers at Ninety-Six National Historic Site who did this for my students in the middle of a hurricane!).
3. A bit of prework is key. Since most distance learning programs online are less than an hour long, it’s not always possible for the person hosting them to include background information that’s sufficient for every student. For that reason, it’s important to create some sort of activity that introduces the topic, gives students a chance to build a little background knowledge, and also contextualizes the program within the larger learning sequence. A short research sprint, a reading followed by a discussion, or a video are all possibilities.
In many cases, you don’t even need to come up with this activity by yourself. Sometimes, the organizations that host distance learning activities have suggested free activities that you can download or print out for your students. Yellowstone National Park provides guided organizers for each of their programs that help students come prepared with key knowledge.
4. Generate questions to identify what students need to know. While many distance learning programs are given in a direct instruction or presentation style format, one thing that can lend more interactivity to the experience, as well as help you capitalize on getting access to an expert, is having your students generate questions in advance. Time can then be set aside at the end of the program for student questions, making the experience even more relevant.
Previously prepared and thoughtful questions are a win-win because they help students utilize the expert knowledge available to them while providing the person conducting the program a way to ensure that they’re meeting your learners’ needs.
5. Include a post-work and reflection component. Following the distance learning program, it’s important to provide students with an opportunity to reflect and build off of what they’ve learned. “Do they feel like they got the information they needed in order to understand the topic?” “What new understanding do they have now?” ”Did the presenter mention things that they already know?”
Those questions can help students reflect on their experience and allow you to plan next steps. You can also consider what the next activity or instructional sequence should look like so that you can capitalize on the enthusiasm and energy that a distance-learning program provides. It’s also always worth checking with the organization or the presenter that you’re working with. More often than not, they can direct you to materials that may be appropriate for continuing student learning after the program has concluded.
Now that you know how to structure them and have gotten some helpful hints, where can you go to find these programs?
- The National Park Service hosts distance learning programs during the off-season (October–March) at many different sites. They’re free, open to anyone in the United States, and as such, they do fill up quickly. You can go to their Teacher Portal to sign up or look at the information on this resource I created, which is a comprehensive list of locations and their offerings.
- California has one of the best state park systems in the nation (as a former California State Parks volunteer, I may be biased) and has a very good distance program called PORTS, which provides great science and social studies lessons from parks around the state. Get on their mailing list for alerts when registration opens.
- Center for Interactive Learning & Collaboration hosts programs from parks, museums, and zoos all over the United States! Visit their website to learn more about booking these awesome experiences for your students.