April 6th is Dday – the day Ontario educators dive into ‘distance learning’ as a response to the closing of schools due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
I got the news last week via a digital staff meeting where we were told what to expect. Some teachers were visibly nervous; others barely batted an eye. I’m in the latter group. I’ve taught some form of elearning since 2003 and currently teach all of my courses via a blended learning format. Moreover, I’d already been posting activities for my students to continue where we left off as well as engaging activities to keep them busy such as my Coronavirus Journal activity (see linked post).
To clarify terms, the province is using the term ‘distance learning’ instead of elearning legitimately. ‘Elearning’ is technically delivered through a delivery system (such as the D2L) and the courses are pre-build modules. Elearning teachers open parts of the course bit by bit, adding teaching strategies via a news feed board and interacting with students through various parts of the elearning delivery system such as: discussion threads, live chats and email. Students can also submit work in this system, and teachers grade work within the system. Although the delivery of content will occur online (for the most part) in the. learning model we are moving to April 6th, technically these are not ‘elearning’ courses. Teachers are simply delivering content to students using technology.
Regardless of semantics, the function of teaching and learning online is the same wether you are using elearning courses or other technology based delivery methods. Moreover, for these digital learning platforms to be successful, teachers and students must follow three key steps: organization and routine, meaningful communication, and engaging content/work completion. Read on to learn how to successfully navigate teaching and learning online.
Step 1: Organization and Routine
The first key to successful distance learning is setting up a productive environment and scheduling the appropriate time to deliver/work on the online course. It is imperative that everyone establishes a routine and sets aside a specific place and time to complete daily work.
For teachers, this looks like setting up a work area at home, as well as an organized course delivery system where students can easily access work (such as Google Classroom). Daily tasks should be communicated via an agenda on the course delivery system, with the option of showing agendas for a couple days ahead if students would like to work at a quicker pace. Teachers also need to be online daily for a specific period of time (i.e. office hours) and allow that time for both lesson delivery as well as communication with students. Logically, more time would need to be set aside for lesson prep and marking, but this daily ‘online time’ dedicated to student learning and communication is essential in developing course structure as well as student relationships.
Students should mirror the organization and routine of their teachers. They also need a specific working environment that is free of distractions, and should set up a daily routine of logging on to their course. If at all possible, this should be during the teacher’s online working hours so that they can interact with their teacher if need be in real time. Like teachers, students would also need to set aside additional time to actually complete their course work and submit it to their teacher via the requested format. This work time can fit into their schedule in other places, even via a bi-daily schedule, but similar to teachers, students should be logging on to the course each day during the teacher’s online working hours.
Step 2: Meaningful Communication
The key to productive teacher – student relationships in the classroom environment is communication, and this is no different in an online environment.
Teachers need to identify appropriate methods of communication (email, chat, phone, video), as well as times that they will be able to communication with students. Some students will require daily communication of some sort whereas others will require very little communication other than the delivery of the actual course. When online learning is beginning, the teacher should be initiating daily communication with each student via some method they feel comfortable with. Often, students are shy to engage with teachers online and feel like they are ‘bothering them.’ It is up to the teacher to establish these regular, daily opportunities for teacher-student communication. In my experience with the elearning environment, I’ve personally found the most meaningful communication to be via telephone or verbal chat with or without video (like Facetime). Although email and chat are great for short questions, it is very difficult and time consuming to use these methods as primary communication methods.
Students should also be open and confident in communicating with their teachers to be successful in an online learning environment. This is a challenge for some students, as they are shy, but if their teacher is not initiating daily communication, then students will need to take the first step and communicate with their teachers via the teacher’s suggested methods. It is also important that student select a communication method that they are comfortable with and let their teachers know what this method is. Just like the regular classroom environment, teachers are not mind readers, therefore if students require support, they need to take advantage of the communication their teacher is willing to provide.
Step 3: Engaging Content/Work Completion
The final key to a successful distance learning experience is the content of the course. For teachers, this looks like cultivating and delivering an engaging course for students, whereas for students their role is participating in the course activities, and submitting the course assignments.
Teachers need to be creative when delivering online course material. A mix of learning activities involving a variety of media: video, discussion forum chats, reading, interactive quizzes, padlets, etc. is a good place to start. Moreover, offering students a variety of communication methods to demonstrate learning is also important (voice, writing, video, quiz, image, etc.). Once teachers get the hang of the learning styles of their students, they can begin tailoring the delivery of the course to these strengths.
Students also have a responsibility to engage in all online course activities even if they are not being graded for ‘summative’ marks. I often have elearning students get into trouble with low grades because they’ve skipped all the learning activities leading up to an assignment, which they end up doing a very poorly on due to not actually understanding the material that was taught. Distance learning is no different than classroom learning in the fact that there are a variety of formative learning activities students must engage in to learn material before they are moved on to some kind of evaluation of these skills. The responsibility of students in a distance learning environment is to participate in the course with the same diligence they would if it were being delivered in a classroom environment.
Let’s be honest – we all want school to resume, in person, like it always has – but that just isn’t an option right now. Distance learning is a great alternative to keep students engaged and courses moving along – even if it is in a much different way than we are all used to. Moreover, what’s most important is teachers reigniting their daily relationships with students as another caring adult in their lives during this tumultuous time we are all experiencing. Sticking to the three keys of distance learning is a sure way to create a positive and productive learning environment for the time being.
What are your thoughts, feeling and concerns about distance learning? Comment below!