When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, many educators learned very quickly that online learning takes work.
In the spring, teachers and administrators had to take on the near-impossible task of moving all their classes and interactions online with no warning. Fall brought its own uncertainties, as districts around the country struggled to reconcile the need to look out for students’ health and safety with the difficulties of managing remote instruction. And this winter, as a challenging semester wears on and the pandemic continues to surge, it seems increasingly likely that some online learning will be unavoidable for the foreseeable future.
It’s crazy to expect that with all their other challenges and responsibilities, teachers will be able to suddenly master online instruction in the midst of an incredibly volatile year.
At this point, it’s well-known that online learning means more than simply teaching face-to-face lesson plans over Zoom. In many ways, it’s a totally different type of pedagogy, one that requires the sort of training and support that are hard to come by in times of crisis like this one.
Fortunately, teachers are not alone. At schools like mine, which pioneered the practices and pedagogies of distance learning long before the pandemic began, we’ve come to understand what it takes to make remote education work. Here are five tips for teachers looking to navigate the online learning landscape this spring.
1. Differentiation is key
According to one recent University of Virginia survey, more than 8 in 10 teachers expect that students will need more personalized, individually focused instruction to meet their needs. Online learning is, in many ways, uniquely suited to that sort of differentiation, enabling learners to focus on the areas where they need the most support.
To make the most of differentiated learning trajectories, educators should provide students with the opportunity to work at their own pace, offer both remedial and enrichment content, give them options for how to demonstrate mastery of material and allow them to work with peers as well as independently. Our approach to online learning and the learning management systems we use focus on creating pathways that are unique to every student. That means a student who gets the right answer on Question A will be directed to a new and more challenging question, while a student who doesn’t may be pointed to a similar question that helps with mastery of the original concept. It’s an approach that empowers students to spend time reinforcing the topics that are the most challenging, rather than leaving them feeling lost or stuck in a one-size-fits-all classroom experience. Online learning can also provide a robust opportunity for peer-to-peer communication: instructors can moderate open forums, provide video and/or audio dialogues or create themed discussion postings that allow for frequent interaction and feedback.
2. Make everything formative
True online instruction means much more than independent reading, viewing of recorded lectures and videos, and silent, solitary assessment. The virtual setting allows for new approaches to formative assessment, tests that take place during the learning process and are used for helping students master material, rather than for evaluation or accountability. In many cases, these assessments in online settings can be more effective than in-person tests. Unlike traditional exams, quizzes or worksheets, which often disappear into a teacher’s hands for days at a time, formative online assessments provide immediate feedback with almost no turnaround time, point each individual student toward the content needed to master a concept and provide the instructor with real-time data that can inform instruction. We’ve found that tools as simple as Zoom or Teams, or those that are embedded within a learning management system, can help to create a more dynamic, exciting learning environment, and give both students and teachers better real-time feedback that helps them improve in the moment.
3. Data is your friend.
All these technological tools and strategies come with data that can help students understand their own progress and give teachers more clear guidance on where and how to intervene. When used safely and appropriately, data can be a powerful and important part of creating an engaging, supportive online learning experience. Data can provide a snapshot into a specific student’s progress or a high-level overview of an entire group. At Penn Foster, we’re able to not only regularly review students’ overall academic performance in specific courses, but drill down to the level of individual assessments and even specific test questions. This type of regular data review can provide much-needed feedback to instructors, and to courseware and curriculum development teams, to improve lessons and content and to ensure that learners are provided with necessary resources and interventions.
4. Outreach matters
Some parts of the online experience are more challenging than in face-to-face interaction — and building relationships with students may be the hardest part. Virtual instruction requires teachers, teaching assistants and counselors to approach this in a different way. That means outreach is even more important in remote courses than in face-to-face ones. Educators should make it a habit to reach out to students outside of class time to check in, see how they’re doing and hear what they’re excited about and challenged by.
5. Community equals confidence
Individual outreach is also important for building connections among students and fostering a sense of community that boosts their confidence and encourages them to lean on peers and teachers for support. In in-person classes, this feeling of community develops almost automatically as students engage with one another. Online, it takes a little more work — but it is perhaps the most powerful way to help students stay on track. Building community in remote settings requires providing feedback that is (being mindful of turnaround times on tests) and robust (using clear rubrics for grading), as well as offering frequent opportunities for peer-to-peer as well as student-instructor interaction. The goal is for the learner to feel that he or she is a part of an online community, not having a one-on-one interaction with a computer.
Online learning may be the order of the day for thousands of students for the rest of the school year, and maybe beyond. Hopefully, lessons from early adopters in online learning can help teachers create an experience that effectively supports their students’ needs and helps keep learning going even in a time of unprecedented uncertainty.
Megan Bowen is director of Penn Foster High School.