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Disclaimer 1: This post was written in the Spring of 2020 as a response to the COVID-19 outbreak, so a lot of the information here is discussed through the lens of distance learning launched by a global pandemic. I have attempted to broaden the lens beyond our current situation to take other distance-learning situations into account.
Disclaimer 2: I recommend quite a few tech tools in this post. Before you proceed with them, please check with your district to make sure the tools comply with your specific use policies for age, privacy, etc.
If you’ve found yourself teaching in a distance-learning situation, especially if it’s been foisted upon you by circumstance, you’ll discover pretty quickly that distance learning offers different challenges from face-to-face instruction. And if you look online, you’ll find tons of ideas and resources that can help you tackle those challenges, so much that it’s easy to get paralyzed at the volume of it all. This is especially true if you’re expected to hit the ground running with very little notice.
To help you, I’m going to take my best shot at sharing clear, carefully curated information on distance learning. We’ll do this in four parts:
- In Part 1 I’ll address your head and your heart, the very real, valid emotional and psychological factors that may be preventing you from doing a decent job with online learning.
- In Part 2 we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of distance learning, options for content delivery, different ways students can demonstrate learning, and some of the tech that can make it all work.
- In Part 3 I’ll share some general tips and advice I’ve gathered from teachers in the field.
- And in Part 4 we’ll talk about troubleshooting, solving some of the more specific problems that come up often when we talk about online learning.
PART 1: START WITH YOUR HEAD AND YOUR HEART
None of the practical stuff is going to do any of us much good if we’re in a distracted, panicked headspace and haven’t tended to the ways our current situation has impacted our emotions. Here are three things you can do to get your head and heart in a better place.
There will likely be times when the people in charge of you start to expect too much, or you expect too much of yourself. If you’re in a situation like the one we happen to be in right now, in the spring of 2020, you may need to regularly step back from what’s right in front of you and remember that we’re dealing with life and death circumstances right now. None of this is normal, and there really is no precedent to follow. Most people are doing the best they can on any given day, and that means things will not go smoothly. And by “people,” I mean everyone: students, parents, your colleagues, your administration, your family members, and you. YOU. Giving yourself plenty of grace is key at times like this.
If you need something to help you regain perspective and cut yourself some slack, read Carolyn Todd’s editorial, Is Anyone Else Just Barely Functioning Right Now?
Now if you personally have a cool, level head at the moment, but someone else is pressuring you to do more, keep in mind that they are feeling their own unique pressure to perform, and they’re passing that on to you. It may be an opportunity to validate their feelings, or it may be time to push back on expectations that are simply unreasonable.
When things start to feel like too much, start moving. Decades of research has pointed to the link between physical activity and brain function, but most of us don’t need research to know that some of our best ideas come to us when we change things up and go for a walk, a run, or a bike ride. This is especially important during times when we are more likely to be cooped up in our homes, such as, say, a quarantine imposed by a global pandemic.
Get with Other People
One of the things that has really overwhelmed me in the process of putting this post together is knowing that everyone’s situation is a little different and not having the tools to address each situation.
One way to alleviate this is to get in touch with others who are more familiar with your specific needs. Apart from collaborating with your colleagues, a great way to share ideas is to find and join online groups. Two I’m recommending here are on Facebook. If you’re not on Facebook, I strongly suggest you set up an account just for the purpose of collaborating with others.
- Educator Temporary School Closure for Online Learning: This group, open only to educators, was created “to support educators who are planning distance or online learning due to school closures for COV19.”
- Dealing with Educational Inequities in Distance/Online Learning: This group was created “in response to the growing list of resources and practices during the COVID-19 shutdown that further increase the educational divide as it relates to accessibility; race; socio-economic status; gender; and other marginalized communities. We want to demonstrate real solutions in distance/online learning that can provide solutions for all learners.”
PART 2: THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF ONLINE LEARNING
Online learning has so many components to it; each one could honestly get its own whole blog post. Since I can’t go too in-depth all at once, I’ll just do an overview of all the pieces and link out to a few resources that can help you learn more about each one.
1. CONNECTING AND COMMUNICATING WITH STUDENTS
It’s essential that you have clear, consistent, accessible channels for communicating with your students. Different pathways for communication will need to be established. The first two are essential and asynchronous, meaning participants can access the conversation whenever it’s convenient; they don’t need to be present at the same time. The third pathway is optional and is usually synchronous, meaning participants must “attend” the conversation at the same time.
Must Have: Outgoing Communication
On this pathway, you give instructions, post announcements, and generally inform your students about what’s going on and what’s expected of them. Some teachers are creating daily or weekly videos for this purpose, while others are writing out instructions in places like Google Docs, and others are doubling up—pairing short videos with written instructions so students get the information through different modes.
It seems like one of the most important considerations with outgoing communication is that you keep it consistent: Pick one place to deliver and store outgoing messages and stick with that, so students know where to look, nothing gets lost in the mix, and no one gets overwhelmed with information overload.
Must Have: Incoming Communication
This pathway is for students and parents to reach out to you with questions, feedback, and updates on their ability to complete required work.
Nice to Have: Two-Way Communication
synchronous OR asynchronous
On this pathway, you and your students can communicate back and forth in a more open dialogue, where you broadcast yourself live and students attend as participants in one-on-one, small-group, or whole-class sessions.
Video conferencing: For this pathway, many teachers are using video conferencing tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts Meet, and Microsoft Teams. These can be great for community-building and giving students a sense of connectedness with you and each other.
It’s important to note that these platforms also have their pitfalls, one of which is that they may directly violate your school’s privacy policies, so be sure to check with the people in your district who are in charge of compliance with those policies to make sure you’re ok. This article from Edsurge does a good job of explaining the potential problems with video conferencing; it focuses specifically on Zoom, but the concepts would apply to any video conferencing tool.
Alternatives to Video Conferencing: If you’ve decided not to go the video conferencing route for now, you can still set up text-based discussions that can get students interacting:
- Discussion boards: Many platforms, like Google Classroom, Blackboard, Edmodo, and Microsoft Teams, give you the option to set up ongoing, text-based discussions on individual topics. You can make these optional, open for students to ask questions on their work, or make participation a required part of students’ grades.
- Backchannel discussion: If you’d like something that feels more dynamic and “live,” try a backchannel discussion, which can happen at a set time (synchronous) or stay open for a longer period of time to allow students to participate when it’s convenient for them (asynchronous). You can open up a text-based chat room in YoTeach (which is very similar to the now-defunct TodaysMeet). If your students are 13 years or older, you could also set them up on Voxer, which allows them to use voice or text to carry on discussions.
2. KEEPING EVERYTHING ORGANIZED
Ideally, you and your colleagues will have chosen a single platform for storing and delivering assignments, collecting student work, posting announcements, and so on. Many schools are already set up on a learning management system (LMS) like Google Classroom, Canvas, Blackboard, or Edmodo. If you don’t already have something in place, and you don’t have time to learn a new platform, it’s probably not a good idea to jump into anything new.
But creating a central hub should be a priority. What parents and students are saying most often is that it’s incredibly stressful to have to keep up with multiple platforms and multiple streams of information, with some pieces coming through email, others through Remind, others through an LMS, and so on. With more than one child at home and more than one teacher per child, things can get out of hand very fast. It’s perfectly fine to use different tools as part of your instruction—you might assign Quizlet flashcards, Edpuzzle lessons, Newsela articles—but for communication, keep things as streamlined as possible.
One simple approach taken by some schools is to maintain a single document (usually a Google Doc) for the whole school. In that document are links to individual documents for each teacher.
This type of document—which is just a really simple hyperdoc—creates a central hub where parents and students can start every single time, then click over to the places where they can find updated information for their classes. Even if you don’t use this specific model, setting up something like it will make your whole school run more smoothly.
Individual teachers can then replicate this type of hub for their own classes, creating a central folder or file where students can find daily or weekly assignments and other communications.
3. LESSON DESIGN
Entire degree programs have been created to show teachers how to design lessons for online learning, and I wasn’t able to delve into this enough for this post. What I did find are two resources that you might find helpful without getting another master’s degree:
- Tips for Designing an Online Learning Experience Using the 5 Es Instructional Model, by Catlin Tucker
- Engaging Learners in Online Environments Utilizing Universal Design for Learning Principles, from elearn Magazine
One principle that I’ve seen in several discussions of online learning is the idea that it works better when you give students some choices, choices in how they take information in and choices in how they demonstrate learning. The next two sections will share some possibilities for both of those.
4. OPTIONS FOR DELIVERING CONTENT
One of the main things you need to do when setting up online instruction is figuring out how students are actually going to take in the content. You have a few options, and it’s a good idea to not just stick to one avenue, since you ideally want to give students multiple modes of intake.
- Google Docs or Microsoft Word Files: As long as you remember to manage the security settings on these so they can’t be edited, these kinds of files are perfectly fine to use as reading materials.
- Regular PDFs: One advantage of using PDFs is that you generally don’t have to worry about them being altered by the student, and things like fonts and other design elements will be preserved no matter what device a student is using.
- PDFs with Annotation Tools: Several tools like Edji and Kami allow users to annotate PDFs, which would make a great close-reading assignment.
- Websites: There’s a ton of outstanding free content online that would make excellent reading material for class assignments. On CommonLit, Newsela, and Actively Learn, you can find good reading material for many grade levels and subject areas. NewseumED offers fantastic primary sources for history and social studies.
- Websites with Customized, Added Layers: With any website at all, you can use Insert Learning to layer on your own instructional content, such as notes, discussion questions, quizzes, and other embedded content.
Video is a very popular way to deliver content online, because it has the potential to restore the voice and visuals that are lost when we move away from face-to-face instruction. Once you have a good video, you can share it directly with a link or use a tool like Edpuzzle or PlayPosit to build a complete lesson around that video.
You have two options for sourcing your content: use videos that were created by someone else, or create the videos yourself.
Created by Someone Else
Obviously, the internet is absolutely loaded with videos, and using them means you don’t have to make them yourself. What’s challenging is finding videos that (a) are appropriate for student viewing, and (b) accurately represent the content you want to deliver, in a way that’s succinct and maybe even entertaining. Finding videos that meet these criteria can be really time-consuming if you don’t know where to look.
To save time, it helps to go to sources that have already proven themselves as creators of high-quality educational videos.
- Khan Academy offers a massive library of videos on math, science, and arts & humanities, including history and government, so that would be a great place to start.
- Look for YouTube channels created by organizations that already have a strong reputation for good content, like National Geographic, the History Channel, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- As with anything else, your colleagues are going to be one of your best sources for finding good stuff, so ask around at school, or find a group on Twitter that can recommend something for you.
Created by You
The good thing about creating your own videos is that you have total control over the content. Probably the easiest way to create instructional videos is with screencasting software, which simply records whatever is on your screen while you narrate into a microphone. So you could, for example, create a PowerPoint-based lecture, then just deliver that lecture on your screen and use screencasting software to record it.
Here are two affordable, popular options for screencasting:
This recorder is built right into Google Chrome, which makes it an incredibly convenient tool for creating on-the-spot screencasts. As of right now, the editing tools are still kind of rudimentary, which means you’re not likely to end up with a very polished end product. Still, for many purposes, this tool gets the job done quickly and easily. Watch this video to learn how to use it.
This popular recorder is one that you download onto your computer, which is slightly less convenient than one that’s built into a browser, but the editing features available with the paid plans might make it worth it for you. This video gives you an overview of how it works.
Static Slide Presentation
Slideshows that combine text with appealing visuals can be a nice alternative to text readings. They’re also much quicker and easier to create than videos, and viewing them requires a lot less internet bandwidth.
These kinds of slideshows, which students would click through on their own, should ideally be designed with that independent experience in mind. Unlike a presentation that you give live, these would not be simply a support for a speaker; they’d need to stand completely alone, with all the necessary text on the slides, rather than in the speaker notes.
Rather than sharing these as a file, which would require you to adjust editing permissions and would likely result in the student looking at it in editing mode, you can share it in presentation mode so the slides take up the full screen and it feels more like an experience, like in this sample presentation. Learn how to set this up with a Google Slides presentation in the video below:
Content can also be delivered via audio, which can be a nice change of pace for students who are used to text or videos only, and because audio files are much smaller than video files, they’re less likely to strain home internet capabilities.
- Listenwise houses a fantastic library of curated, standards-aligned podcasts.
- You can find lots of other podcasts on pretty much any topic imaginable. Here are some good ones that are produced specifically for student audiences.
- Recording your own audio instructions, reflections, or lectures is simple and quick. You can use a voice recording app on a smartphone or a web-based tool like Online Voice Recorder to create MP3 files, which are just audio files, then upload those files right into whatever platform you’re using to distribute information to students. In many cases, students will be able to play them right on that platform.
Interactive Learning Experiences
Some tools have come along in recent years that allow you to create interactive online learning modules, where students click through various instructional components, play games, take interactive quizzes, and so on. Although some activities may not justify the time it takes to put these interactives together, they can offer something different and more fun than the standard fare. You can find these on sites like GoConqr, Deck.Toys, BookWidgets, and Wizer. The one platform that seems to have the most robust collection of options is Genially. Take a look:
5. OPTIONS FOR DEMONSTRATING LEARNING
Just as there are many different ways to get the content into students’ heads, you can also offer choices for how students demonstrate their learning. Probably the quickest, most traditional way to measure whether students learned the material is to give them some kind of test or quiz, but that may not be the best way to get students to experience the content in a deep way. Sticking only to tests also favors students who work well in that mode, rather than allowing other students to shine in areas they might be stronger in. Beyond all that, it’s not much fun.
On Twitter, I asked teachers for some fresh ideas for “end products,” and got tons of ideas back. Below I’ve listed some really good ones. Before you jump on these, be mindful that these end products still need to align with your instructional goals and are not what we call Grecian Urn assignments, creative-looking projects that don’t ultimately have much instructional value.
- Book: Students create a children’s book, mini-textbook, handbook, comic, or other kind of book. These can be done on paper or created with apps like Book Creator.
- Google Tour: Using Google Tour Builder, students can create customized tours that combine photos, text, and targeted locations on Google Earth. These could be used to create tours that explore current events, historical periods or phenomena, science or geography topics, global research topics, students’ personal histories or future plans, or completely fictionalized stories that take place in various locations around the world.
- Infographic: On paper or using a tool like Piktochart, have students create an infographic to represent or teach about an idea or set of data.
- Lesson: Have students write their own lesson on a chunk of your content. Provide them with the basic structure of a lesson to follow, including objectives, direct instruction, guided practice, and some sort of assessment to measure their success.
- Model: Students can create a physical model representing some aspect of your curriculum, then photograph it from various angles or create a video tour of the model with their own narration.
- Museum or Multimedia Collection: Have students curate a collection of artifacts representing a curricular concept, along with their own written captions, in a Google Slides presentation. Two fantastic resources for gathering these artifacts are the Smithsonian Learning Lab and the Google Arts & Culture website.
- Podcast: Have students use the recording tools mentioned in the “Audio” section above or an app like Anchor to record a podcast where they express an opinion, tell a story, or teach about a content-related topic. If students have a lot of material, they can break their podcast into multiple episodes and do a series instead.
- Scavenger Hunt: Have students participate in a content-based scavenger hunt and take photos to record their findings. An app like GooseChase can make this even more fun.
- Sketchnote: Have students create a sketchnote to represent a content-related topic using paper or with a drawing app like Sketchpad.
- Video: Students can create their own videos as creative, informative, persuasive, or reflective pieces. These can be public service announcements, commercials, mini-documentaries, instructional videos, short feature films or animations, or TED-style talks. Tools for creating these can range from quick response platforms like Flipgrid, to screencasting tools listed in the previous section, a tool that creates stop motion videos like Stop Motion Studio, or simple online video creators like Adobe Spark.
- Website: Using tools like Weebly, Wix, or Google Sites, have students develop a website to document a long-term project or teach about a particular idea.
PART 3: GENERAL TIPS AND ADVICE FROM TEACHERS
If distance learning has been introduced suddenly, where it takes the place of face-to-face learning rather than being the standard from the start, treat the beginning of the shift the same way you’d treat the beginning of a school year, by establishing routines and protocols before digging deeply into content, and giving extra energy to rekindling culture and relationships on the new platform even if they were already established in the face-to-face setting.
Keep home responsibilities in mind.
When schools are closed district-wide, all children are out of school and under one roof. This means older kids may be shouldering some responsibility for caring for their younger siblings, and that could impact how well they are able to keep up with deadlines, log in for synchronous events, or respond to communication in a timely manner. Letting students know up front that you get this, and maintaining flexibility with deadlines, can go a long way toward keeping lines of communication open and avoiding misunderstandings.
Make social interaction a priority.
When we are kept apart from one another for whatever reason, our need for human interaction increases. So if you’re teaching a distance learning course that was set up that way to begin with, it’s important to build in structures to keep students interacting with each other and with you.
This principle is even more vital in situations where distance learning is coupled with large-scale social isolation.
Some of the tools and systems I mentioned earlier, like video conferencing and discussion boards, can meet this need; even your own outgoing video, audio, and written communication can be used for more “human connection” reasons. A good general rule to keep in mind is that you don’t need to use 100% of your time for instructional purposes; allowing space for regular conversation, venting, and laughter can be incredibly important.
Keep messaging to a minimum.
I mentioned this earlier, but it’s important so I’m repeating it. If kids and parents are receiving multiple messages from multiple teachers every day, and families have multiple kids, they can become overwhelmed really quickly, and things will start slipping through the cracks.
Try to limit the number of platforms you and your school are using for distributing information. Ideally, you’ll have one clear channel for sending out announcements and messages, and those will be limited in number. Parents and students will have one place to look for all important information, and that “place” will be clean, simple, easy to navigate, and updated regularly so that all users can count on the information being current. The closer you can get to this ideal, the more smoothly things will go.
PART 4: TROUBLESHOOTING
Two specific problems tend to come up more often than any others when it comes to distance learning. Although neither one is completely solvable, here are some of the ways schools are addressing them:
1. Students Who Do Not Have Home Access to Tech
The whole notion of distance learning becomes a problem if some of your students don’t have devices or reliable internet access. Here are some ways to address this problem:
- Get more students connected. In a 2017 post, When Your School is Short on Tech, I showcased some ways that schools are getting unconnected families online, including information on how some schools partner with organizations like Kajeet to loan WiFi hotspots out to families. Although some of the solutions may not be relevant to a distance-learning situation, you may find some resources that can be helpful in your community, even if they can’t be implemented right away.
- Offer non-digital options. Some districts are working around the problem by offering paper resources for pick-up and drop-off. This is how we did distance learning in all the years before the internet, so it’s certainly possible to do it again.
- Use the phone. If you’ve tried other avenues and still can’t get a hold of some families, a regular phone call might be your best option. If you want to keep your number private, you can set up a Google Voice account, which allows you to call, text, or message another phone without sharing your personal number, or use some of these phone settings to block your regular number. If you are reaching out to families that don’t speak your language, try the free TalkingPoints app, which allows you to communicate with them in their language.
- Use the mail. Although not ideal or cheap, it may be possible to mail materials back and forth (if you have office staff still going to school each day, they may be able to help with this). Even if instruction isn’t possible this way, consider the impact it would make if you took ten minutes to mail a hand-written letter to an otherwise unconnected student, just to let them know you’re thinking about them.
- Consider home visits as a last resort. This isn’t out of the question. And if you’re deeply concerned about reaching students who can’t be reached in any other way, it may be possible to just drive to their neighborhoods and, maintaining all precautionary measures and social distancing, check in with them. One visit might be all that’s needed to at least establish a phone connection that you can maintain from that point on.
2. Meeting Special Education, RTI, and Language Learning Needs
So many of our students have individual needs that we have figured out how to meet in a school setting. When school moves to a distance-learning model, both teachers and parents are often at a loss for how to continue working with students with IEPs, those who receive RTI support, English learners, and other students who get one-on-one time with educators specifically trained to meet their needs.
Since this one is really far out of my wheelhouse, I reached out on Twitter for help. Really, your best bet is to read the replies to see what might work for you. You’ll not only get some good ideas, you’re likely to connect with people you can reach out to for even more good ideas.
Apart from that, I have a two more resources to share:
- Microsoft has a growing suite of tools made specifically to make online learning more accessible for all learners. One or more of these may make it easier for you to meet more students’ needs from a distance.
- The TalkingPoints app enables teachers to communicate with parents in the parents’ native language, and it even works if parents only have text-based phones.
As I neared completion on this post, I opened up my inbox and found five other resources that had been sent to me for possible inclusion in this post. Looking through them made me realize I had missed gobs and gobs of information here. I felt completely deflated and overwhelmed all over again, but then, as I have often had to do in the past couple of weeks, I took a deep breath, closed up the things that were distracting and upsetting me, and said to myself, “Today you have done enough.”
I hope this has helped you in some way. If not, tomorrow is another day.