Stein column: Lessons from distance learning
Our nation’s schools have been involuntarily thrust into a massive experiment on distance learning, and I’m pretty sure we already know the results. Robert Pondisci, a senior fellow at the Fordham Institute, said it best: “Neither have we transformed ourselves into a nation of homeschoolers or ‘unschoolers’ any more than passengers thrown from a sinking ship into lifeboats can be said to have taken up rowing.”
Distance learning is the lifeboat in which we have taken refuge to help us survive a storm. It is not the vehicle designed to carry us efficiently or effectively where we want to go. While the research on online learning is remarkably slim, the consensus points to the conclusion that online learning is a better temporary fix than a permanent replacement for classroom learning.
Educators fear, with good reason, that our least advantaged students are likely to be further disadvantaged by the nationwide shift to stay-at-home learning. A review of the best available studies found that online classes are less effective than in-person classes and least effective for students who are already below grade level. Looking at higher education where there is more research, another study found that students learn less when they take courses online, especially those who are least prepared. Putting the gap in concrete terms, taking a course in person versus online is the difference between learning enough to earn a B versus a C.
As we navigate these stormy waters, we might wish for more research to guide the way. One new study is getting a lot of play among education researchers, perhaps because it’s the only current research on the topic. Its title says it all: “The COVID-19 Slide.” This study’s mathematical models “parallel many education leaders’ fears: missing school for a prolonged period will likely have major impacts on student achievement come fall 2020.”
We are already starting to plan to make up for lost learning in the fall.
Still, online learning can be a valuable supplement to in-person schooling, and everyone agrees that being on a lifeboat is better than swimming in the sea. Some of the inventions born of coronavirus necessity might outlast the storm. Three, in particular, have not only contributed to current successes in our local schools to respond to the crisis, but are supported by the available research on distance learning.
First is the importance of high-quality curriculum and lesson design. Research points to the importance of carefully planning online courses to build in best instructional practices as well as to modify practices for an environment with more distractions and less oversight. In the Roaring Fork Schools, we took time to plan carefully before launching distance learning for academic purposes. Teachers received training and worked in teams to develop high-quality, six-week units to carry students through the rest of the year. These lessons provide differentiated supports to serve our students with needs such as special education, English language development, and gifted-and-talented.
Second is the use of online tools as a valuable supplement to in-person learning. Research does support combining technology with in-person learning, or what is often referred to as “blended learning.” Two key features shown to support effective technology-assisted learning are lots of face-to-face interactions and the use of a “learning management system” (LMS) — integrated software platforms that work like virtual classrooms to help organize lessons and assignments.
The Roaring Fork Schools have been using regular real-time check-ins with students in virtual office hours so that students can get assistance and teachers can do the coaching and cajoling that students need to stay motivated and on track. We invested in a LMS several years ago, and the current crisis has catalyzed a higher level of use. Teachers have also been creative in creating video supplements for students to watch on their own time; this practice, sometimes called “flipping the classroom,” allows students to watch lessons at home and use time with teachers and each other to ask questions and get individualized help.
Third is the primacy of personal relationships and the attention to social-emotional needs as a necessary precursor to academic learning. To the degree that distance learning is effective, especially for less motivated or less successful students, it is due to the personal relationships that preceded and continue to nurture it. Social-emotional competence is necessary not only for success in school but in life.
If you must be adrift in a sea of distance learning, it’s much better to be part of a crew. We were fortunate in the Roaring Fork Schools that we had already invested so much in a structure for establishing and maintaining healthy relationships — which we call crew — and in naming the social-emotional competencies — which we call habits of a scholar — before this crisis put them to the test.
It was relatively easy for our teachers immediately to establish connection to their crews and to identify each individual’s needs. We also tapped into our students’ resiliency which had developed through attention to habits of a scholar, and reminded them how to use their resources to stay on course.
Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools.
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