Getting the Most out of Distance Learning

 It's hard to believe the new school year is just around the corner! Anxiety and emotions are running high with all the unknowns: In-person? Masks optional? Virtual? Hybrid? When my district announced 100% distance learning to begin the year, I breathed a sigh of relief that I could finally start to plan. Starting the school year virtually will be different than crisis mode distance learning last spring. By March, we knew our individual students well and although teaching remotely was not ideal,  we knew what our kids needed and how to interact with them. Deep breath. . . 

This begins my 34th year of teaching. I did not yet own a personal computer in 1987, let alone have a computer in the classroom!  Times have changed, yet effective teaching practices have not. Just like many of you, I've spent much of my summer watching videos, webinars, listening to podcasts and reading about distance learning and teaching. I stopped in my tracks when educator and author, John Spencer explained, "The synchronous, interactive nature (of live virtual meetings) makes it a challenge when students have unreliable internet or challenging schedules. It also tends to breakdown in effectiveness as groups grow larger. For this reason, virtual learning is not a great method for direct instruction or for processing new information." Wait! I had to replay that several times. (I was listening to his podcast) I had assumed that my live Zoom meetings were the time to introduce content to my students because it would be me teaching to them, just like in the classroom! However, unlike in the 

classroom, I don't have that same proximity across a screen. I know how distracted I am as an adult during virtual meetings and last spring, I often watched in dismay & frustration, as students played with a light saber during class or laid on their couch to play with their very cute puppy. Live class meetings are the time to bond, motivate, encourage, and review.

Dr. Yen Verhoeven of Qi Learning Research Group touts distance learning as the perfect opportunity for teachers and students alike because it gives us time. Usually in the classroom, we are rushed for time. If students don't understand a concept before we need to move on to the next standard, then we cross our fingers and hope they pick it up later. With distance learning, however, students can watch our pre-recorded videos as often as necessary until they comprehend. This also solves the problem of students who missed the live lesson (or weren't paying attention). Use videos to introduce new concepts, as well as assign students to review material.  Having students watch a lesson on their own, teachers can clarify concepts and delve deeper during a live class session. Parents have commented that watching these videos helps themselves to understand what their child is learning or how a lesson was explained. Flipping the classroom is not a new idea; read about how I created videos to explain math strategies HERE

As teachers, we need to decide on the best use of time with our students. Is material better presented live or recorded? Take note: research has shown that people can attend to videos the length of their age. This means that for my fourth graders, my videos should be no longer than 9-10 minutes. Yikes! I'm still working on this. I tend to be ultra-explicit and talk on and on. But if we think about being in the classroom with our students, we do start to lose kids after 10 minutes! If you have more content, then break it into another short video! 

Most teachers spend the first couple of weeks of the new school year getting to know our students through community building activities. This year, building classroom culture and community is even more crucial if you are teaching virtually, especially since it is difficult to gauge student reactions and personalities across a screen.  Spend time getting to know each other. My friend, Sheri, had a great idea for learning about each other and holding students accountable for completing assignments. For the first week, she is assigning her students to film a short Flipgrid to introduce themselves, including favorite hobbies, books, etc. To ensure they watch each other's videos, they need to take notes while watching.  Later in the week, there will be a Google forms quiz about each student in the class, with information taken directly from their Flipgrids. Brilliant to get students to hear fun facts about each other, as well as important information the teacher will learn about each student! 

During your synchronous time, use breakout rooms. My students LOVE these small groups because they each get a chance to speak, share, and be heard.  IT expert & PD coordinator, Melanie Kitchen explains, “If we want students showing up, if we want them to know that this is worth their time,” Kitchen explains, “it really needs to be something active and engaging for them. Any time they can work with the material, categorize it, organize it, share further thoughts on it, have a discussion, all of those are great things to do in small groups.”  What are some ways you use synchronous teaching time?

You can read more about tried & true tips for distance learning HERE and HERE.

Start the school year off feeling prepared; check out the following blog posts for more great teaching ideas! 

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  1. You'll really be entering a Brave New World this year with distance learning. Kathie your ideas are fabulous, and I know your class will learn so much from you and have fun when working online. I wish you a very safe, healthy and productive school year.

  2. The idea of "flipping" your virtual classroom just as you would flip your in person one is brilliant! The "Getting to Know You" Flipgrid activity sounds like a perfect way to start also! With so much talk of how our students are "losing a year" as the virus tightens its grip on us, reading your post makes me realize how lucky your kids are, and gives me hope for the future of our country. Kids are resilient and will continue to grow. Your plan for beginning this year sounds perfect!

    1. I'm excited about the Flipgrid & quiz; it'll be so fun & make me pay attention to what each student is sharing, too! LOL

  3. Amazing information from an amazing teacher!! Your 4th (and Sheri's 3rd) grade classes will benefit so much from you both thinking outside the box.

  4. I am beginning the year remotely as well, and also breathed a sigh of relief when it was finally announced. The back and forth was VERY stressful. I love the way you point out some of the benefits of distance learning for our students. I know that distance learning is not the ideal, but I have also found some benefits which I'll continue to use when we return to our brick and mortar classrooms. Here's to a wonderful school year!

  5. Your ideas are useful and interesting. I enjoyed your post.

  6. Hi Kathie...You are right, education has changed so much over the years... It was amazing to see how the teachers moved forward with determination to implement distance learning with their students last March. Teachers have spent their summer break learning new ways to effectively teach their students online. Wishing all of the teachers the very best as you begin the new school year with your students online or in your classrooms, Vicky