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Online Instruction: Is it worth it?

By Matt Renwick

Yesterday and today, my daughter has been meeting with her book club on Google Hangouts. She along with six other 5th graders plus her teacher have been jumping on the video chat application to talk about Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes. 

After today’s chat, I asked her what she thought about discussing the book online instead of in person. “It was nice. Not as much learning but it was nice.” She seemed most excited about being able to talk to her friends; she carried her laptop around the house as a virtual tour before they got started with their club.

Her comment, “not as much learning,” might sum up the current effectiveness of online instruction. Now that we are distanced from each other and trying to connect within the confines of our respective homes, school districts (including mine) are working to make the best out of the situation. We cannot replicate in-person communication via the Internet. Body language, tone of voice, and a common learning environment are all lacking as contributions to the full experience.

Access as a Priority

One of the biggest challenges seems to be ensuring access to a strong Internet connection plus a reliable computer. 

Our family lives in a rural area. In the city, access is available as our service provider is offering two free months of Internet. In the country, it’s a different story. I’m currently working with one of our librarians to set up mobile hotspots and deploy them to homes outside the city limits. Even then, there’s no guarantee they will have a strong connection with their teacher and peers via Google Classroom or Seesaw (our chosen learning management systems). Thankfully this is only a few families for right now.

Beyond technical access, there is also the challenge of student access to adequate instructional support. For example, an article for Ed Surge noted that are most vulnerable students may fall behind their peers without the help of a teacher present in a physical classroom. Citing research that validates his concerns, the author Justin Reich goes as far as to suggest that we should dispense with formal education altogether for the remainder of the school year.

“Most schools should pick up days in June or Sept rather than try to go online.” 

Is this proposal flawed? For example, if a few students are not able to access an appropriate education, then should all students not have the opportunity? I have also read news articles that suggest social distancing could last beyond a couple of months. If true, shouldn’t we at least try to understand what works with online-only education while continuing to get everyone “up to speed”, so to speak?

“If You’re Going to Go Online…”

Reich acknowledges that for many educators, teaching online is expected. If this is the situation, he offers this advice: 

“Think about how you will allocate time to make daily or regular human connections with your most vulnerable students.” 

This recommendation, of personal connection, is also supported by studies. In his meta-analysis Visible Learning, John Hattie distilled research on technology-enhanced instruction and found the following six conditions to be optimal for student learning.

• When there is a diversity of teaching strategies

• When there is teacher training in the use of computers as a teaching and learning tool

• When there are multiple opportunities for learning (e.g. deliberative practice, increasing time on task)

• When the student, not the teacher, is in “control” of learning

• When peer learning is optimized

• When feedback is optimized

Thankfully, these elements for effective instruction with technology are not overwhelming for teachers to facilitate. We can set up online opportunities for all students to engage in meaningful learning while devoting more of our attention on the students who need it the most.

For example, consider my daughter’s book discussion. Her teacher started by posing a question and then used a protocol in which every student had to respond once in the video chat before anyone could speak again (peer learning). The students could also pose questions to each other related to their reading (students are in control of the learning). While my daughter was successful without any frontloading, the teacher could have met with a struggling reader ahead of time to prepare them for the chat.

After their online discussion, my daughter had this to say about it.

“Talking about it was good because I listened to what everyone else thought about what we were reading. It made me think about the book differently because we each had our own opinions about the book.”

Additionally, seeing each other through video has been a highlight of my daughter’s days. She can visit with her friends and maintain those relationships from home.

And let’s not forget about the learning that teachers are experiencing in moving their instruction online. We are accelerating the process for embedding digital tools into our practice. My guess is, when we do eventually get back into physical classrooms, some of the more promising technology-enhanced strategies are going to stay while possibly pushing out antiquated approaches.

A Good First Strategy + Tool

If the recommendation for online instruction is to foster and sustain our relationships with students, and I agree with that, then how might we best go about this?

My suggestion: Keep it simple. Stick to tools we are most comfortable with for now and shift the connections we have already developed with kids to online spaces. 

If the technology has a lot of bells and whistles, it might be best to ignore them for now. Review Hattie’s six conditions for optimal instruction with technology as a filter. All six can be embedded within online instruction with only the basic features.

And speaking of tools, the first technology to embed in your online instruction is a learning management system (LMS). Next is a list of my favorite LMSs at each level.

• Primary: Seesaw

• Intermediate: Google Classroom

• Secondary/IHE: Canvas

Leading with promising practices founded on the strong relationships you have with students will help us frame the use of technology so it serves our needs. I realize it’s not going to be perfect. Not all students will have appropriate access. That’s not okay, and we need to continue pushing forward so kids do have the necessary resources and support. Physical resources such as print books and journals should be a part of these efforts provided we can distribute them safely. 

Just as important: let’s be kind to ourselves as we venture into new territory with teaching and learning.

This piece was originally published on Read by Example 

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