To ensure equity and engagement in remote learning, schools need to zero in on key priorities, including enrichment and manageable projects.
On March 26, Massachusetts’ Education Commissioner Jeff Riley released a thoughtful pathway forward for remote learning during a pandemic (2020). The plan has three main principles. First, care for students. Prioritize keeping students fed and sheltered, supporting emotional needs and mental health, and attending to the most vulnerable students. Second, create opportunities for projects and enrichment. The state recommends that schools focus on student interests, family projects, and reinforcing previously taught skills over addressing new material or learning objectives. Third, set realistic expectations. The state suggests that schools aim for about one-half of a typical school day of learning time, with a combination of student-driven learning, educator-recommended activities, teacher check-ins, physical activity, arts, and play. For credit-bearing classes that do continue, the state recommends switching to credit/no-credit grading for work.
My intuition is that whether by fiat, by recommendation, or by necessity, most school districts across the country will adopt similar models that focus on projects and enrichment over trying to maintain a regular schedule of classes. The vast majority of American schools are not set up to rapidly switch to remote, online learning in the midst of a pandemic. Many families lack access to devices and broadband internet, and even families that do have a computer at home often don’t have one for each school-age child. Meanwhile, many teachers are not familiar with digital learning pedagogies, and some districts don’t have the curriculum resources prepared to support remote teaching. As growing economic uncertainty raises anxiety and causes hardship in families and the pandemic potentially causes widespread illness among students and teachers, the barriers to remote education will grow.
Even in the best of circumstances, effective distance learning can be difficult to accomplish. Research suggests that young people have great capacity for online learning, but much less facility and persistence with online schooling. Young people are remarkably facile at using the internet to learn how to cook a new recipe, beat a level in a video game, or explore their interests (Ito et al., 2012). Unfortunately, the research on pursuing formal schooling and courses online provides much less cause for optimism.
Over the last decade, researchers have identified a kind of “online penalty” in terms of grades and dropout rates when students switch from face-to-face to online learning (Dynarski, 2018). High achieving, affluent learners tend to be minimally affected by this penalty: students who do fine anywhere will do fine online. But most students do worse in online courses, and the online penalty is more severe for vulnerable and struggling students—students with low prior achievement, ethnic and racial minorities, and younger students. These are the same groups of students most likely to be hit hard by COVID-19 and a possible economic recession. In the best of circumstances, we’d expect these students to struggle in a transition to online learning, and we can expect yawning gaps in outcomes to emerge during a pandemic. As a result, a focus on projects and enrichment is probably not only the most equitable way forward for the weeks and months ahead, but likely the most effective for keeping students learning and engaged in school.
Key Questions to Address for Remote Learning
For schools and districts that want to adopt Massachusetts’ proposed remote learning model—one based on projects and enrichment—there are four big questions to address:
How will you publish good projects and enrichment activities?
Schools now pivoting to online learning can learn from the experiences of virtual schools already in operation. Full-time virtual schools typically operate with an asynchronous learning model that depends upon parents and caregivers acting as coaches. Schools publish curriculum materials, parents help their students proceed through these materials, and teachers provide assessment of student work and coaching to students and parents. At younger ages, more of this happens with students working under the direct supervision of parents (a tremendous challenge during a pandemic), but as students get older, there is a greater expectation for independence and synchronous learning with teachers and peers. To simplify, virtual schools do two things: they publish curriculum materials and they coach students and families. For regular public schools and district to pivot to distance learning, they’ll need to become good at the same two things.
For students to pursue projects and enrichment, schools need to recommend and distribute them. As much as possible, these curriculum materials should be accessible to learners in every dimension. They should be designed so that students can pursue them independently, with limited support from busy parents who may be working, caring for other children, or sick. Instructions should be simple, with realistic expectations as well as opportunities for extension. They should be disseminated in as many ways as possible: printed and mailed packets, online document downloads, text message broadcasts, pre-recorded phone messages, and radio or television broadcasts. Schools should prioritize low-bandwidth options for families with limited internet access. Materials should be translated into multiple languages and adhere to accessibility guidelines for disabled learners.
I appreciated a remote learning lesson plan from Kelly Gallagher, an English Language Arts high school teacher in Anaheim, California. He encouraged his students to journal two pages a day about their experiences and to seed their writings with interesting readings, news reports, or stories from the pandemic. He promised to share his own writing, and he also encouraged students to read for 30 minutes each day. That’s it. While he published more details online, the gist of his syllabus fits into a text message.
Given all of the complexities of curating, translating, screening for accessibility, and publishing projects and enrichment activities, teachers and schools should focus on these kinds of activities, which are simple, rich, extensible, reinforce important skills, and tap into student interests and agency.
How will teachers remotely coach students?
Teachers will need guidelines about how to safely, compassionately, and regularly support students and families. There are four categories of ways teachers can engage students: (1) whole-class broadcasts, (2) individual coaching and check-ins, (3) synchronous meetings, and (4) facilitating small group and peer learning. Schools should provide teachers with guidance for how best to approach these four modes in their local context.
Teachers will need to regularly send messages to their students to provide support, offer feedback, celebrate progress, mourn loss as illnesses and deaths mount, and offer guidance. In an Advance Placement class, this might mean recording lectures for students who are determined to take the tests this spring. In an elementary class, teachers might read chapters of the class book. Again, teachers should prioritize accessibility: making materials available in simple, low-bandwidth communications with attention to translations and accessibility. In contexts with diverse learners, this may mean that whole class broadcasts will need to be limited (weekly rather than daily), as it can be time consuming to produce accessible materials.
Teachers should check in with their students as regularly as possible; the best virtual school teachers report that they spend most of their time reaching out to students individually. These communications could happen by phone calls, messaging services, or video conferences, but districts will need to provide guidance about how to safely facilitate the communications and how to keep parents and caregivers informed and involved. During check-ins, teachers can offer tutorials, feedback on projects and enrichment work, or just support, care, and listening during a challenging time. There are major obstacles to how much educators can teach and instruct at a distance during a pandemic, but hopefully many schools can find coaching and support models that work.
Since we know that students who struggle academically and who have unstable home lives will be the most severely affected by the transition to online learning, teachers should make a special effort to reach out and connect with these students. The students who need the most help during these challenging times may be the least likely to reach out.
The last two communication modes—facilitating whole class and small group/peer to peer meetings—will be the most challenging. Not only is it logistically difficult to have students meet at the same time, but there are privacy issues with having cameras turned on (and potentially recording) in teacher and student homes across the country. Synchronous meetings can be a powerful time for celebrations and community building, but they raise challenging issues. In the early days of the pandemic, online college courses were beset with trolls interrupting lectures, sharing pornographic images, making vile comments in chat boards, and so forth. Teachers face additional risks of having their teaching recorded and broadcast without permission, of witnessing abuse in homes, and other potential issues. With strong cultural norms, thoughtful selection of technology tools, careful attention to default settings, and clear guidance for teachers, these can be powerful modes of learning, but they come with risks that schools need to understand and address.
How will you partner with students, teachers, and families?
The coronavirus pandemic feels like something that is being done to us. There is a sense of powerlessness as we watch our worlds contract to our homes, apartments, and temporary shelters. But our response to the crisis can be something that we can do together. At every level of schools, we need to find new ways to listen to each other at a distance. If school leaders haven’t surveyed teachers, students, and families about how things are going, today is the day to start. Even a simple three question survey can gather valuable data: “How are you? What has been going well for you? What could we do more of, or do better, to help your learning?” Teachers can ask these questions of students; schools can ask these questions of parents; districts can ask these questions of faculty and families.
Asking these questions will do two things. First, the answers to these questions may provide useful new ideas. Perhaps more important, the more that stakeholders feel like they are partners co-constructing a response, the more invested they will be in learning.
How will you plan for re-entry?
In its guidance, the state of Massachusetts recommends that schools aim to get in about 50 percent of the typical amount of learning time. Many students facing difficult home lives, poverty, disengagement, or illness will simply miss all or most of their learning during the next few weeks or months of school closures. While schools are understandably scrambling to set up modes of remote learning, perhaps the most important work of this period should be planning ahead. What gets taught in your school during the spring quarter that students really need to be successful in future years? What do students learn at the end of 3rd grade or the end of a pre-calculus course that they will need in the beginning of 4th grade or the beginning of a calculus class?
Grade-level teams, department heads, curriculum coordinators, and coaches should be looking ahead to these challenges. How can you make more time for that urgent material in the fall? How can courses be rearranged so that if a fall class typically starts with 1 day for review on an important topic, teachers can make time for 3 or 4 days? With federal and state stimulus money for schools, what might be possible for summer school in August or extended-day time in the fall?
In the current scramble to remote learning, it may feel like nothing is more important than making something that works for tomorrow or next week. But given all of the challenges that schools will have in teaching during a crisis in April and May, it may be more productive to invest substantial time in planning for making things up in summer and fall.
A Cautious Approach to Experimentation
I have spent the last ten years studying education technology and online learning, and yet I have written very little about fancy digital tools in my advice here. That’s because spinning up new school technology initiatives during the best of times is challenging; during a pandemic it is just extraordinarily difficult. As much as possible, schools should try to publish materials and check in with students using their existing technology infrastructure. How much can you publish and disseminate through phone trees, text messages, email, simple webpages, or your existing online infrastructure? How much coaching and checking in can be done with tools that students are already using? It may be that after days or weeks of remote learning, a glaring weakness in the distance learning infrastructure emerges, where some kind of new technology might be worth introducing. But generally, keep it simple.
Publish good projects and learning resources. Make them accessible. Disseminate widely. Check in with students. Solicit feedback. Plan for re-entry.
Schools that do a few simple things well, listen to stakeholders, and plan for the future will likely be in the best position on the other side of this crisis. My hat is off, and my heart is with, all of the teachers and administrators serving students and families in these difficult times.
Dynarski, S. (2018, January 19). Online Courses Are Harming the Students Who Need the Most Help. The New York Times.
Ito, M., Gutierrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., & Watkins, S. C. (2012). Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. DML Research Hub.
Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. (2020). Remote Learning Recommendations During COVID-19 School Closures.