Credit: Courtesy Katie Marron
Meggie Marron, a third-grade teacher at Bullis Charter School in Los Altos reading to her students.

School closures in response to the pandemic led educators to make heroic efforts to provide their students with online learning experiences and continued connections with their teachers and classmates. This has placed a spotlight on the critical need for all students to have access at home to the devices and Internet connectivity required for online learning, as advocated by  FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and many others. A related critical issue also needs to be spotlighted: the lack of readiness of many educators to employ online teaching effectively.

In response to the sudden transition, many educators have moved their existing course materials online, provided live or recorded versions of their classroom lectures, and employed a social networking or discussion tool to enable interactions with and among students. While their efforts are to be commended, in many cases the effectiveness of the quickly implemented online courses has been limited.

Looking past the immediate crisis, there are differing scenarios for how the rapid increase in online learning might influence its future use.  On the optimistic side, we might see an increased recognition of how online learning can extend and enhance students’ education, leading to the widespread implementation of high-quality online courses. Schools could then make further use of online learning to help meet social distancing requirements and provide additional learning opportunities and flexibility for their students.

On the pessimistic side, as described by Michael Horn among others, the rush to online learning without adequate preparation could lead many to conclude that it is of minimal benefit, more frustrating than productive, and to be used only as a poor substitute when face-to-face learning is not possible.

In order to progress toward the optimistic scenario, we need to recognize that effective online learning involves more than just moving a course syllabus and lectures online, just as a successful movie involves more than just filming a live play.

It involves changing the culture of the school, with new types of responsibilities for teachers, students and families, and new forms of interactions among them. It requires providing professional development, time and technology resources to enable educators to optimize students’ online learning experiences. It requires that educators become skilled at building the following, and more, into their online courses:

  • A strong online presence and continuous connections with their students, using multiple forms of communication including video conferencing, real-time (synchronous) and discussion-forum (asynchronous) communications, along with collaboration and social media tools. These connections help keep students engaged and in touch with their teachers and classmates.
  • Clear expectations, instructions and guidance, which are more critical when the teacher is not in the room to monitor students as they do their work. Done well, this can help students become more self-directed learners.
  • Multiple resources to support learning, including “micro-lectures” that chunk the material into small, coherent modules; online videos, multimedia presentations, and readings; interactive online explorations and offline hands-on activities; and other resources appropriate for the content and the students. These provide students with alternative ways to learn and enable teachers to enrich the learning experience for all students.
  • Modeling and facilitation of online exchanges in order to convey appropriate ways for students to interact and work collaboratively online. This helps students become effective online learners, communicators and collaborators.
  • Approaches to personalized instruction for students, providing flexible pathways through the material, alternative means for students to complete and submit their work, and resources and tools for students with learning differences or learning disabilities. To do so, teachers also need processes to monitor students’ progress and identify when they need further support. This enables teachers to guide each student toward successfully meeting his or her learning goals.
  • In general, a positive and constructive culture in which students are motivated to learn and also encourage and support their classmates’ learning. This type of culture is as important in a face-to-face classroom as in an online course, but requires focused efforts to initiate and maintain in online environments.

In this optimistic view, the potential of online learning will become widely recognized as a means of teaching and learning that has different advantages and disadvantages than face-to-face classes, leading to a commitment to support educators in developing the skills to effectively capitalize on this potential and prepare their students to be lifelong online learners. Only then, will schools go beyond addressing equity of access to achieve equity of high-quality online learning experiences.

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Glenn M. Kleiman contributed to California’s early work in technology in education in the 1980s and to mathematics education in the 1990s. He recently has returned to California after many years at Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC) in Massachusetts and at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent viewpoints from EdSource’s broad audience. As an independent, non-partisan organization, EdSource does not take a position on legislation or policy. We welcome guest commentaries from teachers about how they are adapting to distance learning. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us

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  1. el 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    I have a student who has been taking online courses in tandem with in-person classes for several years. For my student, the ability to take courses that weren't available to them in-person, the ability to work at a time that that suited them, and the ability to do so without the distraction or stress of classmates was very helpful. The constant transitions of the school day are not always compatible with a student's learning style. IME, … Read More

    I have a student who has been taking online courses in tandem with in-person classes for several years. For my student, the ability to take courses that weren’t available to them in-person, the ability to work at a time that that suited them, and the ability to do so without the distraction or stress of classmates was very helpful. The constant transitions of the school day are not always compatible with a student’s learning style.

    IME, maybe 10% of students are like this. A real number of kids who are not well served by our current in-person system, especially when they live in areas without many peers – which could be places that are rural, places that are urban, or places where they’re simply different. For these kids, extra options would be tremendous. But, I’ve talked to enough motivated, thoughtful learners to know that most students actively prefer in-person classes, especially for material that is difficult for them.

    Most kids don’t function as well online, and especially not if online is the only mode. That is, they need an in-person mentor of some type – not necessarily a subject matter expert. A self-motivated student interested in learning astronomy doesn’t necessarily need a qualified astronomy teacher helping in person – she might do just fine with an interested, capable adult who will watch her progress, help her find resources, and help her troubleshoot and problem solve, so that she can access the remote expert in the online course. Sometimes this person is a parent, a teacher, a relative, or another friend.

    Having many of the resources online even for an in-person class is helpful for kids who are out for illness, and also potentially creates more time in class for direct troubleshooting and interaction and help instead of a lecture. For math, having the instant feedback of the correct or wrong answer was huge for developing my student’s confidence when things were going well, and preventing trainwrecks of a month of incorrect work when concepts were misunderstood.

    I also think there’s maybe some value to giving kids more flexibility in how they take their classes. Some kids really thrive on taking 7 subjects at once. Some kids seem to do better focusing on one or two topics at a time and burning through those. When kids have health or family crises, we have no flexibility for giving them a month off to re-center if it’s not conveniently scheduled for June.

    So I’d love to see more high quality online courses as an option for all students when students are in a place to benefit from them. We definitely need more connectivity for every student, and universal broadband should be seen as an equity issue, as essential as electricity. However, no one should think that this is going to save money or be a way to do more with fewer teachers – it isn’t. It’s just a way for our teachers to have more tools to provide individualized instruction, both in the school building and at a distance.

    Replies

    • Glenn Kleiman 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, El. I agree with what you say, and expect we will see a rapid proliferation of blended courses that combine some in-class work with online work, driven in the near term by schools needing to meet the social distancing requirements and to prepare for the possibility of additional closures. The challenge for teachers will be to redesign instruction to optimize the use of the both the face-to-face and … Read More

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, El. I agree with what you say, and expect we will see a rapid proliferation of blended courses that combine some in-class work with online work, driven in the near term by schools needing to meet the social distancing requirements and to prepare for the possibility of additional closures. The challenge for teachers will be to redesign instruction to optimize the use of the both the face-to-face and the online time, focusing on what works best in each context. I hope there will be good professional development, assistance and support to help them do so successfully, since the changed context requires different approaches than most teachers experienced as learners or were prepared to do during their teacher preparation programs. Which is what motivated my commentary.

  2. Bo Loney 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    I would like to see online learning kept as an option going forward. I know it would greatly benefit some people with disabilities and working adults who otherwise have not been able to follow their dreams. It could also increase capacity and make wait lists a thing of the past.

    Replies

    • Glenn Kleiman 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Thanks for adding those important points, Bo.