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 Academia.edu 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

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