From the technological to the interpersonal, these changes should be a permanent part of teaching and online learning.

4 innovative online learning practices educators should keep


From the technological to the interpersonal, these online learning practices should be a permanent part of teaching and learning

Key points:

Over the past two years, education systems across the nation have been challenged with oscillating shifts, from classroom learning to remote and online learning, and even hybrid approaches, due to COVID-19 precautions and responsiveness. Amid these ongoing changes, educators reimagined the ways they engaged with their students, and many turned to museums and other community organizations for support to better understand how to leverage our collections, educational resources, and expertise creatively for their students.

For the community of more than 300 museum educators at the Smithsonian, the sudden urgency to scrap our traditional modus operandi unleashed new levels of innovation. We reimagined how to share a vast library of artifacts, artworks, specimens, and content expertise with our audiences to best meet their teaching and learning needs.

As teachers and students return to schools and museums searching for a “new normal,” below are some practices from the past two years I know we’ll keep.

Connecting with students–wherever they are

At the start of the pandemic, our team faced the challenge of helping students learn from home with the support of their teachers and caregivers. As classroom teachers switched from, “How do I engage students in the classroom?” to “How do I teach from home?” our team shifted from “How do we engage people in the museum?” to “How do we meet people where they are?”

Getting there meant making deliberate shifts in how we fulfill our mission and serve our learners. We took our role in a community ecosystem of learning to heart and launched online programs to provide ongoing pedagogical and technical support for the effective use of the Learning Lab – a free portal providing digital access to vast collections of education resources, and developed new templates and tools for teachers to support a range of approaches to learning. We partnered with national and local organizations to provide education resources that supported their evolving needs.

As the return to both classrooms and in-person museum visits is upon us, we will continue to be responsive to the needs of schools and students across the country, no matter where the learning happens.

Better curation

The ways in which we present information as educators shifted during the pandemic, too. Teachers rushed to find high-quality digital content in a vast sea of resources. They turned to podcasts, videos, interactive games, and other media. By experimenting with new types of content, educators changed their own processes of curation.

In a way, curation moved closer to its original meaning. Before the pandemic, most people used “curate” to mean “collect thematically similar resources.” The association dilutes the word. Curation is much more than simple aggregation. The Latin root of curation is based on the idea of “care.”

The world is full of information. Better curation teaches students skills they can use now and in the future. But as many have argued, information is not knowledge. Curating topics for students demonstrates how to organize and synthesize information, then determine its validity. A local teacher in Fairfax, Virginia virtually introduced a new topic to her learners each day through careful curation based on their interests and learning goals. If teachers continue to adopt improved curation techniques, they can start co-creating collections with students. By practicing curation, students will develop skills that will be valuable for the rest of their lives.

Going anywhere from home

Even as we followed stay-at-home orders or limited travel, our worlds opened. Family video chats, watching live streams of theater and musical performances, and playing online games with friends proved our location didn’t have to be a barrier.

For educators in schools and museums, digital tools enabled us to go anywhere from home.

The use of innovative technologies has helped the Smithsonian bring parts of our collections and our renowned content experts to classrooms and kitchen tables across the country. Interactive resources like Secrets of the Sea and Journey Through an Exploded Star have provided ways for educators to engage students in distance learning that both meet the needs of the academic standards they need to teach and pique student interest.

As schools go back to in-person learning on a more consistent basis, let’s keep these digital tools in place. Technology was vital to maintaining a connection with many students. Now it can help close the opportunity gap for students. That means taking what we learned about the power of technology and using it to advocate for:

  • Equal access to equipment and high-quality internet connection;
  • Improved digital readiness of classrooms, educators, and students; and
  • Better technology coaching and professional development for teachers.

Continuing to build on the progress we’ve seen will help close current gaps so that students, no matter where they live, can connect to role models and rich, academic content.

From high touch to high tech

As we listened to educators and caregivers across the country, museum educators responded to the need for a suite of educational resources that spanned “high touch” and “high tech.”

High-touch education resources offer learners hands-on experiences that don’t require a lot of extra materials. These include everything from kits for at-home science experiments and art projects to printed activity booklets to prompts for exploring your natural surroundings on a neighborhood walk. High-tech education resources take full advantage of new and emerging technologies to provide engaging experiences for students. These have included STEM invention prompts via Tinkercad to digital games to augmented and virtual reality experiences.

Along the way, we improved and expanded ways to support student learning. So as we reflect on the past two years and journey on the road ahead, let’s focus on the ways education can emerge stronger than ever before.

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