Looking Forward: Making Distance Learning Sustainable

Looking Forward: Making Distance Learning Sustainable

By the OER Project Team

This blog series, crafted by online learning specialist Ian Usher, began in March 2020, when COVID-19 prompted the shut-down of in-person learning across the United States. This is the final blog in an eight-part series. You can find the rest of the series in our Teaching at a Distance Center.

Looking back and looking forward

Can you remember the last lesson you taught to a full class in a classroom? Did it feel different, significant, portentous maybe? Did any students stand out? Were there perhaps things said, or things you did or forgot to do, which took on a greater significance as the world turned in subsequent days?

It’s possible you’d seen what had happened in other countries, states, towns, schools and had anticipated that change was coming—without really understanding what form that change might take.

Does that classroom seem far away now? The days before shelter-in-place/lockdown/whatever-it’s-called-where-you-are, the days which seemed so full of activity they might burst, those days may feel quite distant.

It seems clear that even if a substantial classroom routine is resurrected and available for most students, it will be far from what we remember that “routine” to look like. Those with family in vulnerable groups might not be permitted to be in a school environment, social distancing might mean a reduction in workable class sizes—and of course all these tentative arrangements could be shelved in the event of localised outbreaks, or a second wave of infections, whether on a national or global scale.

In the event of those scenarios—further lockdowns, or only partially-attended classroom teaching –flexibility, along with enhanced and insightful understanding of the available tools are key.

Tools to cope with whatever happens

We’ve spent much of this series of posts looking at classes of online tools—for example synchronous and asynchronous—and trying to explore effective ways to get started with them, in particular if this is the first time both you and your class have had to attempt online teaching and learning, respectively.

Consider what—if anything—you’ve done with your students using online tools in recent months. Why did you choose to do what you did? (That is, if you can even remember your rationale in the blur of hurried action and short-notice decision making.)

If you are like most people, it was an unplanned list of ingredients mixed to an unclear recipe—possibly a blend of time pressures, your innate in-person understanding of your class, what tools were available and possibly something you’d seen described on social media?

I doubt that—at that pressured time—you, or many teachers, were making notes on the reasons for picking a chosen tool or strategy. “Just get it done” may have been an internal exhortation from your teaching subconscious—or simply the urgent subject of an email which landed, at short notice, from your supervisor.

Being unprepared for the first wave of closures caused by COVID-19 was understandable, and therefore the shock to the system could be explained. However, if and when a second wave, or localized outbreak, arrives, excuses for not being ready will be far harder to articulate convincingly.

With that in mind, I’m going to give you three suggestions to steer your remote teaching practice by, moving forward. Or two, if you want to ditch one of them. Or one, if it’s the only one which makes the grade in your setting. Or none, if you come up with better ones. But if you’re in a hurry, start with mine, rip them off and pass them off as your own. That’d be just fine.

1. Informed decisions win every time—even if you do nothing

The soapbox I carry around (metaphorically) at all times is one with “Make Informed Decisions” stenciled on its side.

In all things—and especially technology choices in supporting effective teaching and learning—making an informed decision is one of the most important things you can do, no matter what it leads to. Deciding to use a survey in Google Classroom so you can understand better where your students are at mentally, physically and emotionally? Great, but make sure you can explain—simply—why you are doing this. Saying “no” to a regular synchronous meeting with your class on a weekly basis because you asked them to evaluate your first meeting and found out that it stressed them—particularly those whose home life doesn’t offer a quiet environment with easily scheduled time slots? Smart decision, but note down why you made it, and what you chose as a better route. This insight—the lessons learned, the changed practice informed by your past online interactions—can be invaluable to your colleagues, and useful for you when a supervisor asks “Why did you do x?” or “Why haven’t you done y?” It’s as bad to choose to adopt a new tool based on little or no understanding as it is to reject a tool on a similar basis. If we can learn to apply the same critical reasoning as we’d like our students to then we’ll be in a strong place.

2. The most important technology skill

It’s simple. The most important skill related to online teaching and learning—or any aspect of educational technology—is knowing when not to use something. That tool your principal has emailed you a link to—does it tick all of the “being seen to be doing something” boxes but add no real value? Don’t use it. Say why. Save your rationale, not to convince others that the decision you made for your class is right for theirs, but so that they can learn from your thinking, even if they come to a different conclusion. Not using the wrong tool releases you from all sorts of burdens. It gives you time back you would have spent learning something which doesn’t fit your class. It’s one of those informed decisions described in the paragraph above. And—if you’re eventually seen as an advocate for the use of technology—it shows your colleagues that you don’t say “yes” to anything on a screen, and can give them the confidence to make their own informed decisions as well.

3. Make it understandable for everyone

This should be informed by 1. and 2. You’ve made informed decisions, you’ve not fallen for the latest ed-tech app, so now you’re going to be doing what with your students’ time, exactly? Remember that your colleagues—and supervisors—might not have a shared understanding of what online teaching could be, let alone what learning online might look like.

At its core, this element is about being able to articulate the reason for the route you’re taking—possibly in terms rooted in a shared understanding—so they respect your decisions and can support you in improving the outcomes. In previous weeks we’ve mentioned forming a community of practice with colleagues to use the tools for your own support and development, and then to reflect on if what you’ve done might be effective with students.

As we’ve touched on before, it’s about showing, not just about telling. If you have clear objectives, educationally focused outcomes in mind and can help the educational professionals around you see that improved outcomes for students are at the core of what you’re doing, then that’s a great starting point.

And… don’t forget that these aren’t necessarily just academic outcomes—mental and emotional health, social engagement and all sorts of other outcomes are vital for students (and adults) at the moment—so demonstrating that you’ve taken all of these into account puts you in a very different position from anyone who’s just hurling technology at a classroom-shaped hole in the life of their school. Lastly, keep in mind that this suggestion—making your objectives understandable and clear—is not just about your colleagues, but about your students as well. They should have a strong understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing, and—of course—they should have the support they need to meet these objectives.

Next steps: if and when it all happens again...

Assuming that schools return, at some point, to classroom-based learning in some form, how does the prospect of that being taken away again make you feel? Not being prepared for the first iteration of such upheaval was probably understandable—but if and when it occurs again? There will be an expectation that we’ve been forewarned. How can you start to modify what happens in the classroom to reflect, be enhanced by, informed by and inform, what happens in the online elements of your class?

If you’ve not watched the video from the previous post, go back and watch it. How do you think Chris Clarke (the teacher featured) would adapt if he was suddenly asked to quit his classroom? He’d undoubtedly struggle with elements of interaction, but there’s no doubt that the strong existing practice he had with students in his online spaces would equip him to continue much of what he’d done already, and move on from that position.

Just like Mr. Clarke, you know the demographic of your class—academically, socially, emotionally—and you can best think ahead on how to equip your students to survive and even thrive if, come the fall, you’re not in class. For the next months—and maybe years—your students may oscillate between your classroom and their home rooms with varying frequency. But with your thoughtful, considered and deliberate steps towards binding them together a little more, they can be in a stronger, more secure environment to learn in uncertain times.

About the author: Ian Usher is Head of Learning Innovation at Herts for Learning, the UK’s largest school-owned company, and a school governor in his home county of West Sussex. He advises schools on implementing learning technology appropriate to their circumstances and has been named an Adobe Education Leader for his work in school-focused e-learning. He plays the guitar badly and remains convinced that stand-up paddleboarding on the ocean is one of the most rewarding ways to socially isolate. 

  • We were sent packing mid-March 2020 on Saturday, no way to prepare for being fully remote on the following Monday. The saving grace was that my students at the time had spent 2/3 of the year with me learning how to learn through an LMS with digital tools. Much more difficult was to start this year with a new crop of students that had very little to no idea how to learn digitally. We have progressed, but I think that I am going to have an on boarding & beginners tool box materials ready for the start of next year. We are nearly 14 months closed as a school, but I feel like we have moved mountains and made miracles! Thanks for the assistance, you have eased our way!

  • I agree with both of your points. This year was, by FAR, the hardest thing I've ever done. The cameras are a little bit more complicated, but I agree with your point. But I think many of the students understand this. Just last Friday a student stuck around after a particularly challenging class to say, "I appreciate you, I know you're working hard, and you're doing a good job."  

  • Students should realize that teachers are also having hard time, we just need to understand each other. Also, their participation really means a lot, just turn that video on to show that they are indeed a part of the class.