Photo: Jina Jackson
Jina Jackson, a math teacher and coach in Fullerton Joint Union High, teaches a math lesson with her students online.

We have learned a lot about distance learning since the coronavirus pandemic first swept California last spring. As an education technology company, we were able to get a first-hand look at the potential pitfalls of distance learning as well as the teacher-led strategies that were most effective at keeping students learning and engaged. Here is what we found worked best in the urban and rural schools we work with across the state:

Start immediately with a clearly defined, consistent approach.

Schools that quickly moved to send computers home with their students, worked with individual families to ensure connectivity and had a consistent learning strategy saw much more regular engagement and progress. Schools that waited three weeks or more to figure out how to get kids connected, or shifted plans one or more times, had far lower participation rates that only dwindled as time went on.

Allow learning to take place when it can.

Schools that encourage students to do their work during times that worked for their family and home life see much higher participation rates sustained across the days and weeks. Access to technology and connectivity are just part of the logistical issues.

Families with multiple school-age children may have to share devices and create a schedule to ensure everyone gets their time and squabbles are kept to a minimum. When we recommended that learning sessions be open all day, for example, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., participation numbers went up.

Create time blocks.

Teachers should set up brief sessions with the whole class and then move to independent work time while leaving the video conference open, allowing students to request and receive help. It is critical to have a time when students have the opportunity to connect to the entire class and their teacher when most of the time students are working independently.

Lead breakout groups.

Teachers can address shared issues by having multiple time blocks per day with smaller groups of students. With multiple video conference rooms set up, teachers can move among small groups of students working in the same virtual room.

Facilitate check-ins.

The most important thing we heard from teachers about distance learning was the importance of being able to feel a sense of connection to the independent work students were doing. Teachers should use the video conferencing room as a tool to provide more personalized instruction rather just to lecture. With a video conference room available, open time blocks allow students to check in individually, like regular office hours. Knowing how long a student spent on a video conference or self-reported time is not as useful as knowing how many minutes students spend actively engaged in learning and how far they can progress in a week.

Use engagement as a way to troubleshoot what’s happening at home.

Teachers should try to see when students log in and how much time they spend doing their work. Matching that data with what they know about their students can help to spot potential issues that may not have anything to do with learning. Using this information, teachers can reach out to the families to better understand what is going on with their students.

A recent survey by YouthTruth found that 70% of students reported obstacles to their virtual learning. Of those students, 64% said they faced distractions at home, and 50% reported feeling depressed, stressed or anxious.

Find the right curriculum — whether teacher- or parent-led

Teachers and parents should look for curriculum programs that have a clear, research-backed pathway through the learning process. Playing math or word games might engage a child, but they don’t always present the material in a progression that has shown to be effective for student learning.

The program should provide a measure of the child’s progress. That gives parents and teachers an understanding of what their child is learning and a clue about what they might need to spend extra time on.

Distance learning is going to remain a challenge as schools try to figure out how to navigate their students’ and staff’s health and safety. But consistency in uncertain circumstances can create an environment for learning, sharing and growing. We must continue building on our experiences and best practices and resources from the state to make things go more smoothly this fall.

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Mitch Slater is the CEO and co-founder of Levered Learning, an elementary online math program born from his 20-year experience as a teacher in the Bay Area from Watsonville to Oakland.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. SD Parent 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    How was “student learning” assessed to draw these conclusions?

    What I hear in San Diego Unified is that everyone agreed that the “crisis learning” in the spring was not good, but now the district says that they have best practices and that distance learning is now going well, while the parents talk about how it’s still not working for their children.

    Replies

    • Mitch Slater 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

      Hi SD Parent, without state testing last year, we had to rely on measures of student learning using the embedded assessments within Levered, as well as anecdotal feedback from the teachers who worked directly with students on the platform. Because Levered was already in place as a classroom-based program before distance learning, the transition was much smoother for teachers and students at our partner schools than it was for schools switching to unfamiliar tools. … Read More

      Hi SD Parent, without state testing last year, we had to rely on measures of student learning using the embedded assessments within Levered, as well as anecdotal feedback from the teachers who worked directly with students on the platform.

      Because Levered was already in place as a classroom-based program before distance learning, the transition was much smoother for teachers and students at our partner schools than it was for schools switching to unfamiliar tools. In most cases, the progress students made in their lessons mapped well to what we had seen in previous years.

      We were only at one site in San Diego Unified, and the principal there actually wrote about the very different experience they had during and after last spring’s transition to distance learning: https://www.eschoolnews.com/2020/07/31/how-our-students-avoided-the-covid-slide/