Thought Leadership

New Theories in Classroom Management in the Age of Distance Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools to rethink how to deliver instruction. In the spring, it created an immediate demand for devices and internet access for all students. Teachers were required to quickly learn how to deliver instruction in a distance-learning environment. The rapid changes challenged schools in new ways and in the fall as many schools re-opened in an online-only environment or a hybrid model, the question resurfaced — how do teachers effectively deliver content, engage students, and keep them safe when they aren’t physically in the classroom with them every day? The answer — effective classroom management.

Managing classrooms in today’s distance-learning environment has changed and has taken on new importance since the pandemic hit. In my work with school districts throughout the U.S. and the UK I’ve developed theories about how to provide effective classroom management. Here are my top four.

  1. Digital citizenship creates a foundation for effective distance learning. The pandemic prompted schools to provide students with devices and internet access so they could learn from home. While this was necessary, it also carries risk. Students can potentially fall victim to predators, have their identities stolen, become victims of cyberbullying, or become cyber bullies themselves. The list goes on. Classroom management in today’s world includes managing those online risks. This means teaching digital citizenship. This should be non-negotiable for schools that are doing distance learning. Students should be taught from Day One the basics of how to be responsible about using their device and accessing the internet. Schools should adopt or update their digital citizenship plans and curriculum to reflect new concerns raised through online or hybrid learning environments. They should teach students how to avoid potentially dangerous websites and how to protect their personal information. Teaching digital citizenship lays a foundation for a safe and productive distance-learning experience.

  1. Monitoring students’ online learning identifies safety concerns and keeps students on task. In a distance learning environment, it can be difficult to tell if students are distracted from the content, or if they are struggling with other issues such as social-emotional issues. In an in-person classroom the teacher can walk around the room to see what students are doing on their computers and make sure they’re on task. They would also likely be able to spot some of the signs that a student is struggling emotionally such as withdrawal from friends or not eating at lunch. But these things are more difficult to discern when a teacher doesn’t see the students in person. Technology, such as online monitoring, helps with these issues. For example, Impero provides a cloud-based software suite that allows teachers to view thumbnail images of students’ screens in real-time. They can do this with students who are in the classroom, and those who are learning from home. This allows the teacher, for example, to see what tabs a student has open. They can tell if a student is playing an online game instead of listening to the synchronous lesson, and they can reach out to the student if he or she hasn’t been active in the online lesson for a while. The suite also includes student safety software which provides alerts if, for example, a student is doing web searches in the background that could indicate thoughts of self-harm or bullying. Teachers can intervene if needed, and can log any concerns in a central record. These types of online monitoring tools and wellbeing software are critical for effective classroom management because they provide information that helps teachers support students — both from an academic and a social-emotional standpoint.

  1. Technology is a tool for engagement and group work. Managing a distance learning classroom includes making sure students are engaged in the content. Group projects are often a great way to keep students engaged, but this can be challenging in a distance-learning environment or even in a socially-distanced classroom. However, instead of viewing technology as a barrier, teachers should view it as a tool to promote engagement and facilitate group activities. Technology has come a long way and there are many platforms, games, activities and lessons available that are perfect for distance learning scenarios. For group work, students can use small-group breakout rooms in Zoom and can work together on projects simultaneously using programs like Google docs. Teachers can use gamified content, organize trivia contests, or find any number of other activities to keep students engaged and excited about the content while they’re learning online.

  1. Students must learn to be autonomous in their learning. Classroom management involves managing both the content that students are learning and how that content is being delivered. There is also another angle. Students must also be taught how to adapt and engage in content in new ways. Now is the time for school leaders to think though the curriculum and rethink what’s relevant. Schools should be training students both for the workforce of today, and also for the workforce 10 years from now. This year has taught us how quickly everything can change. The work environment has been turned on its head as people started working from home, and Main Street is changing. Students need to be taught how to learn in new environments, whatever those new environments might be in the future. They need to be able to figure out how to complete unfamiliar assignments in new platforms and how to do work in a different way to the meet the needs of the times. The world needs critical thinkers and those who can adapt with change. That means training students to be autonomous and to own their education. This is a bigger-picture goal that goes beyond what the teachers are doing day-to-day in their lesson planning. It’s a conversation that should be happening at all levels of education to ensure our youth are prepared for whatever lies ahead.

This has been a difficult year, including for teachers, administrators and students, and the ideas I’ve noted above can help as everyone regroups in the second half of the school year. Another thing I urge is not to panic. Yes, this has been difficult, but educators and students are rising to the challenge. Schools across the country have adapted to continue educating students and are embracing the opportunities that this challenging year has presented. I urge them to continue to embrace these changes and get excited for what’s coming next.

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