Covid-19 has made the 2019–20 school year one we will never forget. With no notice or preparation, teachers were forced to pivot to online teaching. They have performed heroically. This isn’t just my assessment—it’s the consensus of the many students who have shared with me their experience learning from home via technology.
These students—and their teachers whom I’ve also interviewed over the last six weeks—are far less sanguine about online learning, however, with real concerns about its quality and effectiveness. Yet as school districts begin to plan the 2020–21 academic year, online learning will most likely play a prominent role in recovery efforts as many districts will shift to a system that combines online and in-person instruction.
As we move beyond crisis management to purposefully planning these systems, we can look to the successes and problems of emergency online teaching. The following four recommendations, which draw on the experiences of teachers and students with whom I’ve talked, offer strategies to consider.
Design for the Online Medium
For many of the students I interviewed, their first foray into online learning raised issues about pacing, structure, and the lack of interactivity and rigor, and the sometimes confusing plethora of communication and instructional channels (Google Classroom, Zoom, YouTube, email, and various apps). Most found the largely asynchronous nature of learning a “lonely” experience.
Technology alone cannot make learning engaging, so in developing online systems, schools will need to map out their curricula, ensure articulation and complementarity between face-to-face and online learning, and intentionally design for both these environments, seeking a balance between:
- learning activities that capitalize best on the online medium and those done best in a classroom,
- synchronous and asynchronous learning,
- structure and flexibility, and
- activities that can be done alone and those best done with others.
As always, teachers will want to figure out what students will learn from the teacher, from content, from activities, and from each other. To ensure that all communication and instruction are consistent and coherent, schools may need to shift to a learning management system where all content, discussions, assessments, and web-conferencing can be housed.
For the students I interviewed about their experience learning online, well-designed online classes would include several design elements:
“High touch” learning: involving more collaborative activities and synchronous interaction with teachers and classmates.
Greater interactivity: games, web-based simulations, and interactive videos—and fewer worksheets.
Personalized learning: a range of activities that address students’ skills, abilities, interests, and home situations—from choice boards to personalized learning pathways to individual projects.
More challenging activities: projects and activities that address real-world challenges and involve students creating versus simply consuming information.
Prepare Teachers for Online Instruction
One positive benefit of emergency online teaching has been that many teachers learned how to use technology in authentic ways by experimenting in a relatively low-risk environment. Despite learning new skills, and their comfort using technology as part of face-to-face teaching, the five K-12 teachers I talked to still need far more preparation to teach online. As one observed, “Teaching face-to-face with technology is one thing; teaching through technology is a whole different ball game.”
In addition to using online technologies (for example, learning management systems or web conferencing applications), and selecting appropriate web-based technologies to enhance student learning, teachers need more support in learning how to manage learners remotely and in live sessions. They also need training in online assessment techniques and ways to communicate and facilitate online learning, particularly with students who are most vulnerable.
To teach well online, teachers will need to develop a repertoire of online pedagogies that involve a mix of:
- Direct instruction: transmitting information about concepts, skills, and procedures via demonstrations, lectures, screencasts, videos, or online presentations.
- Cognitive models of learning: structured activities that don’t just put information in students’ heads but get knowledge out—inductive reasoning, open-ended questioning, experiments, metacognitive strategies, and problem-solving.
- Social models of learning: collaborative instructional methods we can still use in online learning—jigsaw approaches, reciprocal teaching, discussions, debates, and peer tutoring.
Above all, teachers will need guidance and strategies for establishing a sense of emotional, cognitive, and instructional presence so students feel connected and part of an online community of learners.
Prepare Students for Online Learning
For the students I interviewed, this was their first experience as online learners. Many struggled—both with technology and with being an online learner, particularly in an asynchronous environment.
Thus, in the move to a digital instruction system, one of the most important things we can do is prepare our students to be successful online learners. This will involve helping students with:
- Technology training: keyboarding, logging in to a web conferencing system, using email, remembering passwords, file management, navigating a learning management system, etc. Districts with 1:1 programs that begin in middle school may need to look at some variations of technology training for younger grades.
- Personal characteristics related to successful online learning: motivation, time management, digital citizenship, persistence, self-regulation skills, and help seeking.
- Productivity skills related to online learning: strategies for reading and writing more effectively in an online medium, making and following a schedule, information management skills.
Ensure Structure and Support for All Students and Families
As schools transition to using online instruction as part of a Covid-19 response, districts will need to ensure that requirements and guidelines are put in place to ensure an equitable education for all students—both in school and at home. This will involve getting technology into the hands of every student, creating schedules and routines for students, and establishing new policies and metrics for attendance, participation, and grades in an online medium.
Schools will need clear supports and structures for families. Parents and guardians who don’t speak English and those who lack digital skills, who cannot assist teachers with home instruction, or whose homes may not be conducive to learning online will need additional assistance. Schools might offer workshops for parents and caregivers and their children to model desired home digital learning practices, teach basic digital literacy skills, establish communication channels, share techniques for evaluating their child’s progress, and offer more ongoing social, academic, and technical support to families.
Our most recent experience with emergency online instruction was a baptism of fire—for teachers, principals, students, and parents. Yet it has provided valuable guideposts for design, instruction, and support for teachers, students, and families as we transition into what will be for many a new environment.
Thank you to the teachers and students who kindly talked with me for this article.