Shifting expectations for remote teaching…

As we come to the end of the current school year, thoughts are now turning to long range planning for possible continued disruptions at the start of the next school year. There may be a tendency to push for intensive, formalized training for teachers to learn how to teach online. Although there is a time and place for this, I’m advocating for a more thoughtful approach now to allow districts, schools and teachers an opportunity to scale up the most necessary supports first, for a couple of reasons. First, teachers are completely overwhelmed and need a break from the chaos. Second, what we are experiencing now and what we may experience again is not a true transition to or reflection of online learning. Developing online courses and the knowledge and skills to facilitate them effectively is a long process, often taking a year or more to complete. The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning addresses these differences in higher education and The Huge Difference Between Online Teaching and Emergency Remote Instruction is more focused on K-12. Both articles provide important information on what this means as we adjust and adapt to our new normal. I’ve also covered the differences in remote vs online teaching in a past blog post. In particular, remote learning brings with it challenges that we don’t often see in online education, including: 

  • Lack of stakeholder choice. This is an involuntary, “no choice” disruption for students, families and teachers.  
  • Lack of teacher, school and district experience and training in online education
  • Lack of district and school resources and support structures for online education – online learning requires a support structure that may be substantially different from traditional supports.
  • Equity and access barriers continue to plague any attempt at ensuring all students are receiving high quality or in our current situation, ANY educational opportunities. 

These challenges will hamper any transition to quality online learning experiences. However, informal training opportunities at this juncture are going to be crucial for the short term. Informal training reflects more directly the immediate needs of the individual as opposed to the collective needs of the many. In theory, it should also be more consumable, meaning that we need to understand that teachers are at the end of their bandwidth and are looking for the most efficient solutions to imminent problems. They don’t need to know the WHY of anything right now – they can benefit most from supports that provide guidance on WHAT to do. We can worry about the why later. With this in mind I’ve created a list of Teacher Preparedness Recommendations. The first group addresses how districts and schools can begin to prepare supports for their teachers. The second set of recommendations is for teachers and includes what they can focus on now, and what they can focus on later – when they are ready, and rested. 

Teacher Preparedness Recommendations

For Districts and Schools

  • Become a responsive community of support. Start where teachers are now – focus on just-in-time training and supports. Make them short and easily accessible in multiple formats (This is a great example of how to model what we know about meeting student needs through Universal Design for Learning or UDL for short.)
  • Offer multiple pathways for delivery of support. (Again, a great way to model effective strategies for meeting needs of all learners.)
    • Instructional coaches are a valuable resource for individualized supports.
    • Professional learning networks are crucial for centralized delivery of supports and resources
    • Recorded webinars and text-based tutorials provide support when and where they are needed most. 
  • Become knowledgeable of the latest research into the learning sciences and best practice in online learning to inform the types of supports and resources you provide. The Handbook of Research on K-12 Online and Blended Learning is a good place to start and is available for free download. Don’t forget to ask teachers what they need. 
  • Create an infrastructure that supports remote learning. Evaluate your district preparedness using this simple checklist. Do this with the knowledge that what you are preparing is a stop-gap measure, to get you through to the other side of this crisis, not a shift to an online learning model. 
  • Bring in additional supports for teachers. For example, para-educators can help with grading, discussion board moderation, monitoring attendance, and curriculum design. This will be especially important for secondary classrooms where enrollments can top 150 per teacher. 
  • Establish neighborhood support teams for phone calls and home visits when needed. Expect that truancy will be an ongoing concern. Ideally these would not be teachers. Teachers need to focus on preparing the best learning experiences for their students.
  • Consider attendance policies and how they will be disrupted from this new delivery modality. Cyber-Truancy: Addressing Issues of Attendance in the Digital Age is an excellent article about this very challenge. (A version of this article can be located by searching in Google Scholar and clicking on the link to the pdf.)

For Teachers 

What can I do now?

  • Begin incorporating strategies shown to be effective in online teaching into the design of your teaching materials – do this slowly or quickly depending on your comfort level. You might begin with Universal Design for Learning, which provides a framework for rethinking your role in the learning process and will be an easy carryover when we get back to normal. 
  • Choose only the most important tools to achieve your educational goals (LMS, Web conference, collaborative space, virtual whiteboard, online assessment, resource sites) and become knowledgeable about their features and uses. Avoid distractions and rabbit holes. 
  • Join a group: #remoteteaching, ISTE, Aurora Institute, DLC, Educause. Most have newsletters that you can subscribe to. 
  • Locate online teaching resources on the changing role of the teacher, how to engage learners, how to support parents, how to communicate online, etc. The mental health of all stakeholders is more important now than ever so it is an important focus as well.  
  • Develop communication strategies for your students and their parents. Remember two things; adapt the type of communication to the needs of students and families, and try not to overwhelm parents who may be struggling to support multiple children in their learning. 
  • Reflect on your schedule and adjust if necessary. Think about consistency of student-teacher interactions and your own work-life balance. Establish a schedule for common and routine tasks but also block out time for individual learner support and for lesson planning. Make sure you establish boundaries – you don’t have to announce that you don’t work on the weekend, your consistent actions will let students know. I schedule my weeks from Wednesday to Tuesday so that students have time after the weekend to ask for help.  
  • Rethink your assessments. High stakes tests don’t always translate well to the online environment. Instead, consider incorporating, short, frequent, formative assessments that test for knowledge, and project-based assessments for mastery. Check out 5 Takeaways From My Covid-19 Remote Teaching for a great reflection on assessments. 

What can I do later? 

  • Participate in formal training. It will be more impactful now that you know what you don’t know.
  • Take an online class. Our shared cultural experience of “school” has been disrupted. We need a new shared experience so that we can relate better to what our students are experiencing. Most importantly, teachers need to engage in experiences that model best practice. 
  • Incorporate additional tools including tools that allow you to create and share digital content. 
  • Design and develop lessons and create learning materials. It’s not necessary to have an entire course designed before you begin class but you should have some pre-developed activities in your toolkit that will allow you to adapt as needed. You might begin with a simple icebreaker that can be facilitated in an online discussion forum or a Zoom conference.
  • Create a set of class guidelines that reflect the new normal. You might even engage students in creating this through a consensus building activity which can easily be facilitated in an online discussion forum
  • Develop a consistent model and structure for delivering content – keep it highly structured at first to “train” students on your expectations. You can loosen restrictions once a pattern has been established. I use a simple design for all of my weekly lessons: 1) Introduction, 2) Objectives or guiding questions, 3) Resource links, 5) Background, 6) Tasks, and 7) Assignment checklist. Begin with due dates that require students to check in more often at the beginning of the semester to set high expectations. 
  • Use your LMS for everything! LMS’s are designed to streamline content delivery, assignment submission, and assessment feedback. If your district doesn’t have one, consider using a free version like Schoology. Avoid online learning by email – it will overwhelm you!

Some have suggested that this crisis will change our educational systems in a permanent way. My hope is that it will change for the better. Perhaps it is the forced change that we needed to move away from antiquated systems that rely on ways of teaching and assessment of learning that don’t necessarily serve the needs of the most important stakeholder, the learner. Online learning forces a shift in mindset and perspective. It’s effectiveness depends on student-centered instructional approaches that rely more on mastery and less on time, more on student-needs and less on institutional needs, and more on personalization and less on averages. In addition, the access issues that have plagued us for years have come fully to light, prompting some pretty drastic measures and very creative solutions. We no longer have excuses for continued equity disparities in the quality of an educational experience or the access to one. 

Articles linked in this post plus additional resources

Moving discussions online…

Online discussion forums are probably the most challenging aspect of online learning. Yet they are the most critical in establishing and maintaining a sense of community in the online classroom. They also provide a great opportunity to engage students who may have been too shy or introverted to speak out in class, to engage students in the practice of reflection, in promoting collaborative problem solving, and to conduct meaningful conversation without the usual distractions that can occur in a face-to-face discussion. But they take practice to master. You can start by checking out Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation for some useful tips. 

Discussion forums don’t always have to be instructional. It’s helpful to provide options for students to connect with each other or to even help each other if they have expertise in some area such as technology troubleshooting for example. At a minimum, I keep three discussion forums operating at all times in my classes: Instructional forums for all content related discussions, a Social forum for connecting with other students, and a Tech Help forum where I encourage students to help each other. Individual forums can also be created for you to communicate one-on-one with students or where they can post content related reflections. Instructional uses include debate, role play, review, consensus building, and KWL. 

Perhaps the most important indicator of discussion success is purpose. Having an established purpose to a discussion, and relating that purpose to students, is important for motivation and interest. If there is no real reason for a discussion, other than evaluating what students know by posting textbook questions, then you can expect to generate flat, rote responses. Related to this is the dreaded “post once” and “respond to two classmates” requirement that has become so common in online discussions. Please don’t do this unless you have provided a specified purpose for doing so. If you can’t come up with a reason, then don’t ask your students to do it!

Online discussions forums should not be used for questions that require right or wrong answers, essay or short-answer responses, and yes/no responses. Discussion prompts that initiate interest and a sense of curiosity will engage learners more readily and hopefully result in conversations with breadth and depth. So what does a good discussion prompt look like? Here are just a couple of examples of good and better prompts that are designed to address higher level thinking while maintaining a sense of authenticity and real-world connections: 

Do you think we should go to the moon again? Why? Humans have been to the moon and walked on the lunar surface. What are your thoughts on humans surviving and creating a civilization on the moon, based on what you have learned about the air and surface of the moon? Do you think we should support life on the moon? Why or why not?
Explain the role of scarcity in the U.S. Economy.Use real-life examples to explain how you function in the US economy. Relate your experiences to (1) your role in both the product market and the resource market and (2) how scarcity has had an impact on your decisions.

When creating discussion prompts, consider including learners in the process by providing opportunities for them to take the lead in discussions, to suggest possible questions they would like to discuss on a topic, and to choose questions or prompts from a bank of questions you provide. If your curriculum provider gives prompts for you, take advantage of opportunities to extend thinking through your follow-up questioning strategies. 

Your ultimate goal in online discussions is to encourage engagement and participation. The role most commonly associated with this type of facilitation is referred to as guide on the side. In this role, you should consider yourself the supporter of learning and communication among learners, not the focal point. Good facilitators never provide all of the answers. Your primary responsibilities are monitoring discussion activity, summarizing responses, redirecting conversation if necessary, and clarifying misconceptions when needed. Some tips for facilitating online discussions effectively: 

  • Model appropriate responses using questions to probe for deeper learning, offering descriptive comments, providing constructive criticism, posting early, checking in, asking thoughtful questions, responding respectfully, using personal experiences, and verifying appropriate grammar and spelling.
  • Instead of trying to respond to each student, post occasionally and thoughtfully. Establish this pattern early on, so that learners understand your intentions. (This applies to almost all cases except in the case of introductory activities where you should make a concerted effort to respond to each and every student.)
  • Establish protocols that assure learners you are reading every post, even if you do not respond to every one. Do not just tell learners this. Show them through summarizing, highlighting selected posts, and providing frequent encouragement (not praise).
  • Differentiate your role within discussions. Some will require extensive involvement, whereas others will require very little. Similarly, differentiate your voice and tone, depending on the purpose of the discussion.
  • Avoid public praise of contributions. Instead, reflect student ideas and foster deep exploration of content by highlighting posts that are on the right track. Summarize two or three posts, and pose an additional question that challenges the learner to dig deeper.

Some things to watch out for in online discussions

Students who have challenges with writing and reading. Provide options for posting discussion responses such as video and audio. Allow struggling students to use text-to-speech and speech-to-text software. 

Inappropriate content or language. Model and teach appropriate behaviors. Allow students to moderate each other, by reviewing responses before they are posted. Have students practice reading their responses aloud before posting – sometimes the spoken word will be more revealing than text. Remove any inappropriate posts and contact the student privately through email. 

Exclusive and bullying behaviors. Save all documented evidence of the behavior, and report the incident if necessary. If the behavior is resulting in students being excluded, devise practices that promote heterogeneous grouping and partnering. Require that learners respond to one set of classmates in one post and another set of classmates in another post. 

Some resources…

Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation 

Discussion Prompts

Critical Thinking Criteria for Evaluating Online Discussions

Five Tips for Improving Online Discussions Where to get free WIFI