Distance Learning Experiment

This post is by guest blogger, Chris Birr, EdS. Birr is a member of the ion Board of Directors, a School Psychologist, MTSS Coordinator and deep thinker. Chris lives in suburban Columbus, Ohio with his wife, two daughters and dog.

This is likely a frustrating time for teachers and parents. Teachers are scrambling to figure out how to teach from a distance. Most parents are trying to figure out how to work from a distance while managing learning from home for their children. There are no blueprints for this since we have never had a situation where everyone stayed home. In the past week, a couple of resources have come out that begin to highlight promising practices related to education in our current situation.

Dr. John Hattie recently released a summary regarding the effects of school closure. As we all worry about what the effects of an extended shutdown will be on our students, Dr. Hattie brought up a couple of points. First, there is not a lot of data regarding the effects on student learning during extended shut-downs or closures. Summer vacation has minimal effects and school closure due to teacher strikes or catastrophic events also have had fairly minimal effects on student achievement. None of these are ideal but context can help.

A few of the takeaways were worth noting. I am paraphrasing but the link is here to read yourself. First, do not panic if this goes on for 10 or so weeks. Again, it is spring and growth tends to be lower in spring anyhow. Next, worry more about the technical subjects that parents tend to know less about (I read that as math). As teachers, use opportunities to obtain feedback about what students do not know and fill in the gaps, without the use of busy-work. Lastly, it is not the amount of time that matters. What matters is how we use the time with our students.

REL Mid-Atlantic and a team of researchers recently provided a webinar to discuss evidence-based practices, a decision-making framework, and approaches to addressing equity in the age of school-closure. Personally, I am a big REL supporter and this webinar appeared to be a welcome, genuine attempt to put some parameters around what can be controlled and provide recommendations regarding our best hypotheses for what might work in the near future.

Below are highlights of the critical takeaways from the webinar. Readers are directed to the REL Mid-Atlantic site to access the on-demand version of the webinar. Many of the items below are questions that were posed and issues to consider when planning or refining distance learning opportunities. Again, no one has all the answers but the following are posed as items to consider to improve service delivery. the

Remote Learning consists of Synchronous and Asynchronous methods. Synchronous joins students and teachers in real-time via technology. Asynchronous requires students to work on their own (worksheets, videos, emails)

Synchronous instruction matters

  • Critical elements to include in synchronous instruction:
  • Time to interact with the teacher
  • Feedback, tutoring, AND support
  • Project-based learning- creating meaning matters to students
  • Gaming or virtual simulations- use highly engaging methods
  • Plan beyond content delivery- provide additional resources (supplement)
  • Educators can help collect data to inform practices. /e2iCoach/
  • Use evidence to refine practices

Have a Plan B– not all students have access to technology or adequate internet

  • Options such as picking up materials when food is picked-up (meal service) or make phone calls

Equity- not all students can access equipment and internet

  • Partner with internet providers, create areas to access hotspots while maintaining safety, public television or radio to promote instruction
  • Support Parents- have virtual office hours or modes of communication where parents can seek assistance
  • Choice of Instruction- Does instruction meet the needs of ALL?
  • Special education, English learners, homeless, economic situation, culturally responsive- are these students receiving what they need to complete work and remain engaged?
  • Rigor for all? Does instruction engage those who struggle and those who require enrichment?

As an attendee of the webinar, I appreciated the timely and thoughtful approach of the presenters. Background on what is known about distance learning and the starting point to improve instruction was clearly presented. The takeaway that synchronous and asynchronous opportunities to learn are necessary may provide some teachers with a starting point if guidance has been less clear from district leadership. District leadership was provided with recommendations that may assist with planning or confirm the work that was recently begun. As usual, this webinar confirmed my support of the RELs.

Going back to Hattie’s summary, do not panic. Take a page from REL and look at what we do know about distance learning. Look to add some active involvement with students and provide methods for them to complete work on their own. Provide feedback and try to find ways to keep engagement high.

Implementing all of this at once would be daunting and frustrating. Based on the information provided, I would pick one strategy to implement and seek proficiency over time. Possibly, seek district-approved modes to provide synchronous instruction. Keep the expectations realistic for students and parents and track progress even by tallying contacts or percentage of engagement in the class. Refine and try to increase engagement. Select, plan, attempt, reflect, refine, repeat.

I hope that we will all be past this and moving to a new normal in the coming months. Best case, the strategies, and skills learned now can be applied in an isolated situation for students who struggle with regular attendance. Again, the hope is to re-open and engage in normal practices in the near future. Nevertheless, if we are faced with rolling closures or another virus arrives, this is the time to develop the skills and practices to increase effectiveness and efficiency while minimizing disruptions.