Education thought leader Alan November isn’t shy about discussing what he believes is a key misstep that many educators are making in shifting to web-based instruction during the pandemic.
Instead of taking the same techniques that teachers have used in their classrooms for years and trying to apply them within a remote learning environment—an experience he compares to forcing a square peg into a round hole—November believes teachers and administrators should view the pandemic as an opportunity to reinvent education.
“We’re trying to recreate the traditional school experience online,” he says. “What we should be doing is looking at models for learning that are very different.”
How to structure remote learning in a way that leads to deeper learning and engagement is a question that remains very relevant, even as the current school year winds down. New guidance on reopening schools from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that students be spaced six feet apart when they return to school, at least initially—and K-12 leaders will have to apply some ingenuity to make this happen.
If leaders follow the CDC’s recommendations, one option might be to have cohorts of students alternate between in-person and remote learning when schools reopen. This means online learning is likely to continue in at least some capacity this fall.
Empower students to take charge of their learning
Based on initial data, it appears many educators will need to change their practices if they want to engage students in learning online.
Even after working to bridge the digital divide by distributing more than 100,000 laptops and tablets to students since mid-April, the Chicago Public Schools found this effort hasn’t resulted in more remote learning. Although 93 percent of the city’s students now have access to digital lessons from home, 58,000 students—about a quarter of the student population—didn’t log into the learning management system at all during the week of May 11, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.
November believes a lack of student motivation is the problem, and it can be traced back to the design of online instruction. “The system isn’t designed to motivate,” he says. “Don’t blame the kids.”
He isn’t alone in his assessment. Tom Daccord, co-founder and CEO of EdTechTeacher, says educators are at one of three stages in leading remote learning. Most are at stage one, he says, in which they’re simulating their physical classroom environment online. They’re using synchronous learning tools like Zoom or Google Meets to deliver information and lead class discussions, just as they would in their regular classroom.
“They’re striving for continuity during a period of great turmoil,” he explains. While this can be comforting for both educators and students, it’s not the best use of the online learning environment, Daccord asserts.
In stage two, teachers are using sophisticated online tools such as screencasting software and polling apps to create more active learning environments. This results in deeper engagement for students, he says—but it still puts the teacher at the center of the learning process.
Teachers can get to stage three, Daccord says, by reframing the central question from “How can I teach” to “How can my students learn,” which puts students in charge of their education. “Instead of having students watch a screencast, have them create videos and podcasts,” he advises. “When students are creating their own content, they’re constructing meaning—and they have more autonomy over their learning.”
Consider how students like to learn on their own
When designing high-quality remote learning experiences, educators should take inspiration from how students like to learn outside of school, November believes.
For instance, students enjoy seeing what their peers have created, especially if it’s video content. They spent countless hours watching content generated by other teens on sites like YouTube and Instagram.
If an assignment calls for students to understand the physics of designing a structurally sound tower, November would have them look for videos of their peers in Singapore explaining how they designed and built towers for a science fair project, using the web search “site:sg award winning science fair tower.” (The search term “site:sg” limits the results to web content with the country code for Singapore.)
“My sense is that students would be so interested in what other kids their age are capable of that it wouldn’t seem like work to them,” he says.
Many students are also drawn to gaming, and educators can borrow concepts from game theory in designing online lessons that students would find engaging. When students are playing a video game, November explains, they’re in control. They’re getting immediate feedback on every decision they make, and they must work together with their peers to solve a series of challenges. All of these design elements are highly motivating.
By giving students some autonomy and allowing them make choices in how they’ll learn, rather than creating highly structured online lessons or activities, “you get a lot more work out of them,” he concludes.