Returning to Remote Learning

Parents, teachers, and administrators all reeled from the frustrations and challenges of the sudden shift to remote learning last Spring, so it’s no surprise that everyone needed a break. But it appears that remote learning cannot go away, and we have squandered a summer in which all those stakeholders might have prepared for the new reality.

School districts are struggling to determine what’s best for learners even as they acknowledge that 25% of teachers are high-risk and that support staff [nurses, secretaries, bus drivers] are essential to re-opening. Some have pushed back their opening date even for hybrid learning that combines in-person with remote; others have opted to go all remote from the beginning. Given the current stats for the pandemic, I suspect that most hybrid programs will find themselves having to close at some point in the Fall. Clearly, learning will be remote for a vast number.

How do we make it work better? How do we use this opportunity to improve teaching and learning? Surely it’s not enough to make do when this is our new normal.  Just a few options:

  1. Reconsider educational roles. The Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state superintendents, outlined some roles schools might consider to focus attention in key areas: academics, technology, emotional support, and family outreach. Specialist leaders can help their colleagues succeed. For example, schools might consider having the teachers who were most successful with remote learning last Spring become School Remote Learning Leads with release time to support their colleagues. Academic Content Leads can be teachers with deep knowledge of standards, principals, and assistant principals. The principal, assistant principal, counselor, or social worker might become the Care Team Lead. This approach supports all faculty and staff in adjusting to the challenges of remote. If teacher contracts prove an obstacle, perhaps teacher’s associations will grant a temporary waiver.
  2. Do the work to establish classroom norms and build community that you’d normally do in person before you move to academic work.
  3. Recognize the inherent inequities in remote learning: internet access, access to devices, parental support, speed of internet, etc. Record Zoom sessions for later access for students who were unable to participate; seek ways to provide paper tools where internet is not available.
  4. Don’t depend on Zoom alone. Jennifer Casa-Todd writes, “We should be asking, is it more effective to have my students watch a video I created to learn a concept and then meet in real time to go over any issues or is it more effective to teach an interactive lesson in real time?” (https://jcasatodd.com/synchronous-vs-asynchronous learning/?fbclid=IwAR0sYP0Pf6FjuqJ0)
  5. Embrace technology, since we’re stuck with it, and seek out more digital tools like Screencastify and Padlet. Let students offer you ways they might want to share their learning.
  6. Rethink the purpose of learning. Never has it made more sense to move to a constructivist approach, to address real-world problems. Consider using problem-based learning for small groups.  Real world topics promote engagement and make the relevance of the work obvious.
  7. “Pandemic pods,” groups of families organizing remote home schooling groups, perhaps even with hired support, offer a model for those who choose remote learning in publice schools – why not partner up with one or more families to provide additional support and share efforts?
  8. Make online learning as interactive as possible. Use breakout rooms in Zoom for small group work. Use Zoom surveys to create “quizzes.” Create an open forum or discussion board so that students can support and mentor each other.
  9. Provide ongoing feedback, not only in Zoom sessions. Consider emailing embedded comments on student writing sent to the teacher.
  10. Recognize that social/emotional learning and mental health have taken a hit with schools moving to online instruction. Work on ways to build in community-building. Reach out individually to students who seem to be disengaged or struggling.

These ideas provide a mere beginning. Remote learning remains essential. It’s up to us to make it worthwhile.

After Covid 19?

As I watch my teacher friends and neighbor parents deal with remote learning, I find myself wondering about both the short-term and long-term impacts of the current upheaval.

Certainly teachers, students, and parents are likely gaining some technology skills as they navigate online learning and teaching. EdWeek insists that “[t]hese are not normal teaching and learning conditions. What we are experiencing now is emergency remote teaching and learning—or as some have called it, “pandemic pedagogy.”[1] In that article, Natalie Milman assures us that well-designed online teaching can be effective, that “the truth is that it is not the medium that matters but the design of the learning experiences, the quality of the content, and the engagement of learners.” But, she warns, our emergency response to Covid is quite different, and the context of fear and uncertainty further challenges online instruction.

The current chaos causes questioning and exploration. How much remote learning is enough? When is it too much? Can Zoom gatherings replace face-to-face interaction? How can we fairly assess learning under these circumstances? How do we collect data about all this to inform future decisions?

Though the questions and options may often seem overwhelming, I hope they suggest a true opportunity to transform education. Now that we cannot continue business as usual, now that our traditional models of teaching and learning, and of assessment, have been upended, where do we go from here?

I hope we seize the opportunity to build on some of the very best changes occurring right now: more ownership of learning by the learner thanks to good facilitation of that learning by the teacher, more project-based and problem-based experiences that cause learners to think critically about the world around them and to solve problems, more collaborative learning made possible through technology, more self-publishing and sharing – these are the first that come to mind for me, but they are only the beginning.

In our home we start each morning with an expression of gratitude. Lately we’ve sought to include gratitudes for the occasional good changes brought to us by this pandemic. The challenges we all face may also become a force for good if we have the will to fight for positive change. Some would struggle to return to “normal” and business as usual. I would like to see us embrace the uncertainty that this pandemic has created and choose how to shape teaching and learning for the future. We can do better. We must do better by our learners. And if we do, then we will have found one silver lining in the current tragedy.


[1] https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/03/30/this-is-emergency-remote-teaching-not-just.html?cmp=eml-enl-eu-news2-rm&M=59233304&U=1603651&UUID=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2