How Not to be a ZOOMBIE!

The shift to remote teaching has created a disruptive mix of teaching delivery modalities that share many of the same attributes as online and blended learning, but not all. However, one of the most prolific delivery methods is the use of live web conferencing. While we can expect that this would be a natural response to distance learning from a more traditional face-to-face delivery, it is not always the best approach. Online teaching has a long tradition of asynchronous (delayed-time) instruction, an approach that leverages the benefits of flexibility in time, pace, place and path to learning. These are the foundational constructs of effective online learning as well as the key elements of blended learning, which also relies on a substantial portion of online content delivery. Requiring students to log in to live lessons everyday, for some defined portion of the day, is anathema to these best practice principles and may not always be in the best interest of the learner. The overuse of live lessons can result in those distracted, zombie-like reactions you may have witnessed, if your students attend at all! Of course age and developmental ability are key factors in any decision about what approach to take, but in general, live lecture-based teaching may not be the most effective way to keep learners engaged. And what’s worse, will likely be impossible to sustain over the long run. Not only is there no common metric; How Long Should a Remote School Day Be? There’s No Consensus, but it’s not realistic to expect teachers, students and parents to sustain traditional seat-time requirements in a remote setting. 

The tendency for teachers from traditional classrooms will be to keep doing what they have done in the past, but there are tried and true alternatives to a Zoom-based classroom. First and foremost, screen time should be employed thoughtfully and judiciously. As you move online you will learn pretty quickly that lectures are better recorded and live interactions should be saved for activities that prioritize discussion, discourse and social activities. This article by EdSurge does a great job of distilling some of the more challenging aspects of online teaching down to some common misconceptions: Watch Out For These 3 Mistakes You’re Making During Distance Teaching. Here are my quick tips: 

  • Delayed time delivery approaches are best used for recorded lecture, independent (but guided) practice, reflection, creation, engaging peer-to-peer discussions (consensus building, role play), inquiry (virtual field trips, simulations).
  • Real-time delivery approaches are best used for building community, addressing social-emotional health, team building (whole group), practice, engagement, demonstration, application of concepts, problem solving (small group), providing feedback, office hours, responsive support, remediation (one-on-one). 
  • Young learners present special challenges because of their inability to read and write, however, they still will do best in an environment of consistency, routine and familiarity. Think about short bursts of live instruction that are delivered on a regular basis. However, they can also manage recorded lessons where pauses are included for the completion of independent work. They may then come back to the recording to check their work or to move on to the next lesson. 

The simple truth is that it takes training, practice and time to develop effective online teaching practice along with a deep understanding of what it takes to keep learners engaged when you no longer have a captive audience for a set amount of time each day. It’s also true that online learning requires an entirely new infrastructure of support including entire systems and processes for acquiring, delivering, maintaining, and trouble shooting the technology, along with staff who support special needs students or students who are truant, staff for test proctoring, instructional design and content development, and scheduling and managing out of school activities. All of these elements need to work together to support the learner, as an individual, not as part of a group of students assigned to an learn a specific amount of content in a specified amount of time. Until this realization is made, any efforts we take as a stop-gap measure will only result in stop-gap results. Maybe it’s time now to begin investing in approaches that can help our children retain what knowledge they have, gain what knowledge they need, and shift back into the traditional school environment armed with approaches that improve on our past attempts at schooling. 

What might that look like? Luckily, we have almost two decades of research on best practices in online learning to tap into and help inform our decision-making. That research should not be used to tell us what to do, but rather to provide some guidance on how to move forward given the unique situation we are in now. Two articles provide a quick synopsis that might be useful: 

We know that online learning relies heavily on building and maintaining relationships for success, which requires intentional approaches to maintaining stability, consistency, structure, and availability. The use of a central HUB – preferably an LMS – is the simplest way to support teachers in these efforts. Ideally, everything should be available online, curriculum, assessments, videos, places for interaction, schedules – everything! That way, regardless of where or when a student accesses their learning, be it at home, at school, at the library, or on the bus, everything is available to them. Here are some other considerations for organizing the learning delivery of learning:

  • Make a common, consistent schedule that is shared with EVERYONE – including parents. Make sure live meetings don’t overlap – teachers and parents can’t be expected to be multiple places at once. 
  • Use just one single logon for all classroom materials. Requiring students and parents to log in to multiple sites for materials is a recipe for failure – especially for parents who must supervise multiple children. 
  • Find ways and extend resources for innovative solutions such as micro-classrooms or learning pods so that their existence in the private sector doesn’t create equity issues. 
  • Look to existing online schools for inspiration. I’ve said often that online schools learned early on the value of working with families as a whole, rather than just the student. This may mean rethinking the teachers role in terms of familial support. 
  • Teachers should not be expected to be content developers or video production specialists, but should focus their efforts on creating learning experiences with content that has been provided for them. Sending teachers to a production studio to professionally record all of their lessons is the worst waste of time. If a school or district can’t find the resources to develop their own content, use what already exists – there is a lot of quality content out there – why reinvent the wheel? And we know from research that students prefer personal, low effort videos, especially when they are timely and address just-in-time needs and concerns. 

The approaches to lesson design will also need to change. Engaging learners when they are not captive in a classroom can present challenges. In general though, shifting from passive to active learning has been shown to be effective. This may be a not-so-small hurdle for teachers who rely on teacher-directed approaches. Engagement occurs when learners are part of the process, when learning is authentic, and when learning connects with student interests and passions. Models that promote inquiry, such as project-based learning, work well, even in online environments. Here are some general tips: 

  • Shift from a lesson a day to a focus on mastery of content or competencies within a variable time frame. This takes advantage of the flexible nature of online learning while still holding learners accountable. It also frees up teacher time to track student progress and for developing targeted interventions for struggling students. 
  • Use analytics for predicting student success. Predictive modeling has been shown to predict outcomes based on results early in the semester
  • Sal Khan advises live lessons with shorter small group sessions – think in terms of touch points vs. long lectures to large groups. Along with this allow for free time, for independent learning, and for collaboration with peers. Every minute of every day does not need to be scheduled.
  • Think about organizing learning by topic and theme, rather than subject matter. This removes the tendency to focus on rote learning and promotes cross disciplinary interests.
  • Focus on solving authentic, relevant, meaningful problems rather than grades. Use authentic audiences to boost motivation and quality. 
  • Value the process – not just the end product and incorporate reflection as part of the accountability process. This will engage learners in the assessment cycle by focusing on assessment FOR learning.  
  • Provide opportunities for collaboration and teamwork (yes it can be done online), where learners are designers of their own experiences. 
  • Connect with the larger community to solve problems that transform lives. 

If you’ve had a sense of a Zoombie apocalypse in your classroom, this might be the time to think a little bit differently about how to engage your students more fully, and in ways that are better aligned with effective online teaching. For learners, school does not have to mean sitting in front of a computer screen watching their teacher deliver content. It can and should be an active immersion in the learning process, using varied delivery modalities that align with best practices for the world we live in now.

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