With this latest—and largest—surge of coronavirus infections in the United States, K-12 schools that hadn’t yet reopened for in-person learning now see few paths to do so in the near term, and many of the schools that were offering some face-to-face instruction are now pulling back into full-time remote learning.
Clearly, remote learning is here to stay, at least for the next few months. In recognition of that reality, a new report has outlined “10 ways to make online learning work,” covering a range of best practices. The report is the work of the COVID Collaborative, a coalition of education, health and economic experts, written by the former directors of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology.
The report also includes a foreword co-written by five former U.S. Secretaries of Education, from both Democratic and Republican administrations. “The nation must act with urgency and purpose to ensure all students have access to high quality online learning opportunities,” they write. “This national crisis demands that we innovate toward a better future. With the futures of millions of students on the line, we don’t have a moment to lose.”
What follows are summaries of five of the ways they suggest improving online learning for all students, using data, evidence and research. You can read the full report, including the other five suggestions, here.
Connect All Learners
The most crucial issue to address is the digital divide. Approximately 9 million low-income students lack both the hardware and the internet connectivity to enable virtual learning, which “represents a national emergency,” the authors of the report write. (Disclosure: Two of the report’s authors, Richard Culatta and Joseph South, work at the International Society for Technology in Education, which is the parent organization of EdSurge.)
Ensuring that all students have high-speed internet access and functioning devices is a baseline requirement for virtual learning. The report highlights states (Tennessee, Mississippi, Massachusetts) that have used state and federal relief funding to purchase devices and expand broadband connectivity. Individual school districts, too, are getting creative in meeting this need through solutions such as portable Wi-Fi hotspots.
“As long as the digital divide remains, it stands as a failure of national will that translates into greater educational inequities,” the former Education Secretaries write in the foreword.
Teachers are feeling anxious, overwhelmed and out of their depths as they navigate their roles in the pandemic. This is especially true for newer teachers who have not had the benefit of time and experience in the physical classroom before moving online. Supporting teachers by meeting their social-emotional needs, compensating them adequately and offering training on how to provide high-quality virtual instruction will have high payoff for students down the road.
“If teachers are not prepared to provide a high-quality online or blended learning experience, connecting students at home may be an expensive endeavor with little educational benefit,” the authors write.
Rethink Use of Instructional Time
Schools should use asynchronous (self-paced) and synchronous (live virtual) learning strategically. Synchronous learning is best for class discussion, small group work and social-emotional learning exercises. Asynchronous learning is better for independent study and when students are completing their individual assignments. There is a place for both, the authors argue. Additionally, teachers should consider offering “office hours” for students who want to talk one-on-one or need extra assistance.
Foster Connections and Relationships
The relationship between a student and his or her teacher is a critical component of the learning experience. Those relationships have been, at best, altered during the pandemic. At worst, they’ve been strained or nonexistent. According to research, this disproportionately impacts students from low-income families and those with learning challenges.
Nothing will replace face-to-face interactions, but many schools have tried to offer engaging ways for students to check in with their teachers regularly, sometimes every day of the week. Virtual office hours are one option, as are video journals and individual student-teacher check-ins. During these live meetings, the authors write, educators should pay attention to and support student well-being.
“These strategies are especially necessary in a time that is so uncertain for students. The higher levels of stress that students are experiencing now can also dampen their ability to learn, which means schools benefit greatly from following practices to lower levels of stress and increase the sense of belonging in these new learning environments,” the report says.
Identify Students Not Being Served
Many students are missing from remote learning. Some are not showing up to Zoom meetings, others aren’t turning in their school work, and still others have not been seen or heard from in months. This trend has been recorded in school districts across the country, and it is an alarming one.
The report recommends using a learning management system to have one agreed-upon home base for remote learning and assignments. It’s helpful for organization and communication, but it also provides “early warning indicators for student disengagement, which can trigger follow-up actions from the school,” such as outreach to families. That, in turn, may lead to greater understanding of what’s at play and holding the student back—equity issues such as a lack of internet access or challenges at home.
“This kind of outreach to our most vulnerable learners needs to be prioritized and is most effective when the entire school community can be mobilized to assist through a coordinated effort,” the authors write.
Above all, the authors argue that this national crisis ought to prompt creativity and energy around how to make learning higher quality and more equitable for children.
“COVID-19 has given us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink and reimagine all parts of the learning experience,” they write. “We have an opportunity to use this moment to address many of the long-standing challenges that have plagued our education system. But taking advantage of this moment requires action and vision—beyond just ‘getting through’ the moment.”