Amid COVID-19 Concerns, Planning for Learning As Schools Close
As the coronavirus outbreak spreads, more school districts are asking us how they can prepare to continue teaching and learning in case of school closure. This is an important topic to consider as school districts around the world have begun closing their brick and mortar doors and turned to virtual learning. We believe with the right preparation and communication every school has the capacity to meet this challenge. We reached out to technology experts and educators who have been teaching and leading schools in China from the United States to learn more about how they’ve been facilitating virtual learning over the past month.
This is the first in a series of articles related to virtual learning that we will publish in the upcoming weeks to share ideas and resources with leaders and teachers.
Virtual learning is an educational experience or activity that is delivered through an online platform and can be accessed outside of the classroom. There are schools and organizations that have intentionally used virtual learning for years. This article will focus on virtual learning when it must be utilized in the face of an unplanned and extended school closure.
Virtual learning is about making sure students have opportunities to engage in rigorous learning opportunities – it is not about replicating school as we know it. This is especially true when virtual learning must be implemented for the first time on a large scale as an unplanned replacement for normal school. In these situations, we’ve found the most valuable learning experiences are those designed to provide students an easily accessible way to continue their learning when they’re not at school. Based on conversations with experts and educators, and our own experience with personalized learning, we have identified four priorities districts should focus their initial planning conversations around.
Virtual Learning Requires Flexibility
The biggest shift virtual learning requires is flexibility and a recognition that the controlled structure of a school is not replicable online. The ability to monitor the learning process is limited and overly strict expectations, such as all students will join a video conference to take an exam, can be easily subverted and presents an equity issue. There are four ways in which schools should consider being more flexible:
- Time: Virtual learning provides students with the opportunity to access and complete assignments asynchronously. There should always be clear expectations for when assignments are due and the pace at which students should move through those assignments. However, providing more flexibility could mean that an assignment that would have been completed during second period on a Tuesday could now be completed anytime Tuesday, or within three days of its posting, or anytime that week.
- Accessibility: Virtual learning only works if all students are able to access online assignments. While online access is more ubiquitous than it was ten years ago, it is not a given that all students have consistent access to high-speed internet. With that in mind, consider giving students multiple ways to access and submit assignments. Can a student download all their assignments and email responses back? Is it possible to complete an assignment from a phone screen rather than from a computer screen? Will all students be able to access a live video lecture at the same time?
- Mastery: The most obvious way to submit an online assignment is in writing, but virtual learning provides an opportunity for students to demonstrate mastery in different ways. Liza Fagan is a chemistry teacher at Nansha College Preparatory Academy, a high school in Guangzhou, China. “Flexibility is really important. We don’t care how kids submit their work as long as they’re able to demonstrate their understanding. This could be emailing me a written assignment, or recording a video of them explaining their answer, or taking a picture of their work.”
- Length: Virtual learning should be delivered in smaller chunks than a traditional class lesson. Fagan suggests, “Whatever you would normally expect to do in class, cut that in half, if not a third.” Teachers are not in front of the class to keep everyone on pace and focused or to intervene with students falling behind. Therefore, it is easier for students to fall behind in their virtual work. Shorter lessons will make it more likely that students will remain successful and on-track.
Everyone Benefits from Clarity and Simplicity
Virtual learning provides less opportunity to troubleshoot and provide clarity around an assignment or problem. Virtual learning will already be new for most students, educators, and parents - this is not the time to try other new things as well. Keep lessons as simple and clear as possible. Directions should be straightforward and devoid of any ambiguity. Teachers may feel compelled to create exciting new lesson experiences with tools that they (or their students) have never used before. This is a recipe for disaster. Every teacher who uses a projector can think of the time that class went off the rails when the projector stopped working. Now imagine that happening with an online tool you can’t help students troubleshoot. Lessons that are simple, consistent in format, and clearly explained will be easier to design for teachers, easier for students to successfully complete, and easier for families to provide support for.
Tech Support is an Ongoing Priority
Ensuring that all teachers and students can successfully and consistently access virtual learning assignments will be an ongoing challenge. While it may feel like scooping water from a leaky boat, this is a critically important challenge that districts must plan to consistently address. Some important considerations include:
- Ensure all teachers have a fully functional computer at home so they can post and grade assignments
- Consider whether to let students take devices home and how you might equitably distribute those devices
- Increase virtual tech support for staff and for students and families. Consider whether to have two separate tech support lines, one for staff and one for non-staff.
- Investigate the current capacity of your server and plan for a significant increase in usage.
- Provide teachers, students, and families with easy to access support resources, such as step-by-step guides and video demonstrations.
Communication is Frequent and Routine
Virtual learning, especially in schools that have never used it before, can be very isolating. All stakeholders should prioritize routine communication that will likely be more frequent than if school were in session. Laurel Schwartz is a Principal at the Beijing Concord College of Sino-Canada. She encourages school leaders to establish a regular and predictable cadence for communication with students and families, and with teachers. For staff meetings, Schwartz, “tries to keep them as ‘normal’ as possible. We follow the same agenda structure and look for ways teachers can virtually participate, even though it’s over a video conference call.” Newsletters, video messages, “virtual” office hours in chat rooms, emails, phone calls, text messages, and posts on social media are all ways to remain engaged with students, families, and colleagues.
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About Noah Dougherty
Noah Dougherty is a Senior Design Principal at Education Elements. He previously worked as a teacher, curriculum writer, instructional coach, and school leader. He began his teaching career in Prince George’s County, Maryland with Teach For America and continued with KIPP DC. He has taught middle school social studies, 8th grade ELA, English 12, AP Literature, high school journalism, and DC History. While at KIPP DC he wrote the middle school social studies curriculum, designed a blended professional development course on writing instruction, and supported personalized learning. As a school leader he coached eleven teachers on the ELA and social studies teams, leading to a 13-point gain in students earning a 4+ on the PARCC, more than doubling the portion of students passing from the previous year. Noah has also worked for DC Public Schools and LearnZillion on curriculum development initiatives. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. Noah grew up in Syracuse, NY and now lives in Washington, DC.