Remote Learning

While Schools Go Online, Here's How Teachers Can Turn Uncertainty Into Opportunity

Schools across the country have kicked off what you could call an unconventional school year, and administrators and faculty are under immense pressure to make it work. However, despite the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and its potential academic consequences, what we really need is a change of perspective: this could be an opportunity for educators to innovate and explore within the classroom.

As Head of School at Laurel Springs School, a leader in online K-12 education for nearly 30 years, I was committed to helping brick-and-mortar teachers transition to online instruction when the coronavirus crisis first swept the nation in March. That commitment took the shape of a guide, Best Practices for Teaching Online, an aggregate of insights from more than 100 online educators that covered topics including maximizing valuable synchronous class time; effectively incorporating online tools and resources; and taking good care of students, families and ourselves.

While some schools have introduced a hybrid approach and others have decided to remain fully remote this year, teachers have a real opportunity to expand in ways that may not be possible within the confines of the physical classroom and seven-hour school day. This opportunity may look different depending on subject area, grade level and class size, but remains universally compelling in that educators can completely reimagine the teaching experience. Here are some key factors to keep in mind:

Kids Can Learn Self-Advocacy

In a brick-and-mortar classroom, certain aspects of the learning experience can be taken for granted: for example, if a student wants to contribute during a discussion, they can raise their hand. If they have a question about the material or a grade, they can approach the teacher at the end of class. In an online environment, these seemingly ordinary interactions must be completely reinvented. However, this presents an opportunity for students to become advocates for themselves.

By encouraging students to proactively and independently communicate with their teachers or set up appointments during virtual office hours, they learn critical self-advocacy skills, build confidence and experience ownership of their learning that typically does not occur until college. The earlier a student learns the value of academic engagement and develops these skills, the more active they may become in academic goal setting, exploring their interests and influencing their education.

You Can Provide Authentic Feedback

In a typical school setting, teachers may find themselves providing written feedback on assignments or simply handing back tests with a numeric grade and hand-drawn smiley face. Throughout the school day, teachers may also perform formative checks to ensure that students are following along and grasping lesson content. When we consider how to provide feedback in an online environment, the focus changes: how do we check up on kids and monitor their progress when we aren’t directly interacting with them every day?

Fortunately, there are plenty of online platforms such as Vocaroo and Voicethread that teachers can use to record audio or video clips of themselves delivering thoughtful, one-on-one feedback for students. Instead of scoring an assignment with a 90 percent grade, a teacher can explain the student’s areas of proficiency, as well as make detailed recommendations for improvement on future assignments. Additionally, the student will be able to see the teacher’s face, hear their voice and feel a sense of connection, which strengthens relational learning as teachers continue to build personal connections with students.

The Flipped Classroom Can Work

With so many schools going fully online for the upcoming school year, there is a heavy debate about the efficacy of synchronous versus asynchronous instruction. However, the reality might surprise you: neither model is superior to the other. Synchronous and asynchronous instruction actually work best together in a flipped classroom approach.

This hybrid model provides a great opportunity for teachers in the online environment. By combining synchronous and asynchronous learning activities, teachers have the freedom to explore new methods that may not be possible during a typical, brick-and-mortar school day, as well as afford their students the flexibility to create a schedule that works for them and their families.

In the flipped classroom, teachers can schedule synchronous sessions or seminars via Skype or Zoom that encourage collaboration and discussion among students, as well as host social activities—such as a “lunch bunch”—that let students feel connected to classmates despite the physical distance between them. When incorporating asynchronous instruction, teachers can utilize project-based learning: for example, a middle school science teacher might create a video while completing labs in the classroom, share it with students virtually and assign a lab report that will be presented to the class during a synchronous session. This allows each student to individually absorb, digest and demonstrate mastery of the material, while also providing an opportunity for collaboration as classmates discuss the student’s hypothesis, potential problems and solutions.

Flexibility Can Improve Balance

In addition to the tips for self-care provided in the Best Practices for Teaching Online guide, teachers can help students and families balance and more effectively incorporate education into their lives through remote learning. By setting aside the rigidity of the seven-hour school day in the brick-and-mortar building and instead adopting a flexible, self-paced model, students and their families can now have the freedom to complete school activities when it makes the most sense for them.

To achieve this, it is critical that teachers think about time differently in the online environment: they should assure families that schooling does not have to be done in seven hours per day, five days per week. They should also encourage families to allot time specifically for breaks during the day. Students and families alike do not need to become prisoners to their desks.

That said, students require structure, and there are a few ways that teachers can help to build that framework. For example, teachers can provide a few sample schedules for families and set expectations about when work is due, which synchronous sessions are required and how student progress will be monitored and evaluated by the teacher. Parents are closely watching what happens in the online environment and relating this information and maintaining contact with families can help ease their worries and keep students on track.

As students continue to adjust to this unprecedented and still somewhat unexpected way of learning this fall, I implore educators to take this opportunity to step outside of their comfort zones and approach the unfamiliar with confidence—and armed with tools and resources to help them do so, such as the Best Practices for Teaching Online guide from Laurel Springs. While students will eventually return to the physical classroom, I hope these lessons create an opportunity to reimagine education as we move forward.

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