By Candace Stump

Distance Learning, and 5 Ways to Make It Work

"Distance learning is different from classroom learning" is like saying "water is wet". Most teachers have now started to teach remotely, and if you are one of them, you’ll know it comes with challenges. However, I’d like to turn it around: as a teacher, you now have an unprecedented opportunity to create your own online classroom! You get to discover new and innovative ways to engage your students. To help you on your journey, I have gathered some best practices to retain and build on many of the strengths of your in-person classroom.

1. Interacting with your students

Right now you may not have as much biofeedback (body language) to help guide your student interaction like you normally do, but in some ways, that can make students into better communicators. Online learning requires being specific; it requires more written interaction via chat, documents, and other interactive tools, which is a chance for students to really work on their written communication skills.

Fun, creative assignment alternatives for older students include visual projects such as videos, podcasts, comics, and social media mini-essays. Written skills can be practiced in essays, interviews, plays and day-to-day short responses. I myself had students describe major events of the Civil War via Twitter, teaching them responsible use of social media while learning history!

For younger students, you can assign photo journals, drawings, poems, and even voice recordings as methods of making learning visible and providing progress assessment. This can be an opportunity for students and teachers to expand creative thinking and production. Students of all ages can also come up with their own suggestions for creative projects.

Another way to leverage the online format is via the immediate feedback that is possible. This is a huge plus to online learning. Real-time results from platforms like Quizlet, Kahoot!, and Mangahigh provide correct answers right away, allowing students to move ahead at their own pace, which is perfect for mastery learning. Reports on Mangahigh’s teacher and student dashboards give a live overview for assessment, which is very helpful for personalized learning and planning.

2. Maintaining classroom oversight

In a regular classroom, you are able to maintain oversight, at least in part, through classroom layout and physical presence. While you don’t have the same control over the classroom while teaching online, there are disciplines you can still maintain: where students can “go”, how they work in groups, and above all, subject matter. Depending on what remote learning strategy you use, you can establish learning objectives through slides and via a virtual whiteboard. Finally, you determine how students are assessed: what they require to deliver to you at what deadline. Your online classroom is still “your space” to facilitate; using clear communication and collaboration, your students will come to understand that and be able to adjust to it.

3. Where is the collaboration with peers?

In a classroom setting, it is easy to divide students into groups. In an online setting, you can still do the same thing: tools such as Adobe Connect and Moodle give you the option to break students into subgroups, while students don’t have visibility to the other groups. This way, you can encourage each group's creativity and learning process as it avoids swiveling heads to check out what other students come up with. Online learning offers students an opportunity to focus on the material at hand versus the social dynamics of grouping. Additionally, online discussions offer a more level playing field to learners who are more reserved. When provided with questions in advance, online discussions can provide the opportunity for thoughtful responses from quieter students, improving the quality of peer collaboration.

Finally, collaborative processes are key to helping students achieve deeper levels of knowledge, and online collaboration means the opportunity to collaborate with anyone, anywhere in the world!

4. Freedom for exploration

Some exciting opportunities come with online learning; one is that it allows you to try out multiple new delivery methods. It presents an opportunity for teachers and students to experiment with how they actually learn and work best, while the specified time constraints of a school day are flexible.

For example, a student on asynchronous learning watches all their English instructional videos in the morning, then goes for a socially-distanced run or plays with a sibling; then they start to write the assignment. Distance learning gives the student the opportunity to take a step back, have regular breaks and come back to their assignments after properly digesting the information. As long as the assignment is finished by the set deadline, this might actually be functionally healthier than sitting in a classroom all day. Of course, this is an example based on a student who is able to plan and manage time independently. It may not work as well for all students, who may need more guidance. Regardless, it is an opportunity to allow students to practice their time management and planning skills.

5. Structuring your classes

The time you spend together for guidance needs planning while learning online, more so than when teaching face-to-face. Here are a few methods that I found to be best practices for distance learning:

  • If you are meeting students daily, setting a specific time to connect and teach coupled with daily deliverables is a great way to keep pace. For example: meet at 10:00-10:30 every day, and set daily deliverables to be due every morning before class the next day.
  • If you are meeting 1-2 times per week, then setting deadlines and maintaining them is even more important. Make sure to get confirmation that students have received and understood all directions, as miscommunications can be a setback. We recommend checking in with your students often during the week. Ideally, your students will all come to office hours, but you may need to reach out via email or chat to students who do not.
  • Try not to put too much pressure on your students or yourself to make it work perfectly from the get-go. When trying out new methods, establish a trial run where students’ performance isn’t graded yet. This gives you and your students time to get used to the ‘new normal’ and gives you space to identify any hiccups you might experience.

The truth is that managing every moment of the day isn’t achievable; nor is it an instructional goal. Encouraging intellectual curiosity and engagement is the goal; what if a student has a genuinely interesting idea for an assignment, but would like another day to finish? While learning remotely, you can give them that extra time (and them only, by adjusting their due date), knowing that you are truly encouraging lifelong learning. It’s a win-win!

Outside of class time, our goal isn’t to structure their time; it’s to push and support them to structure their thinking. We don’t necessarily want to manage their time; we want to manage the flow of their minds. What if we could do that, without managing their time? There are many ways that distance learning can serve you and your students. What other breakthroughs might we find?

We’d love to hear about your tips and tricks, share them with us on Twitter (@mangahigh) and let’s help each other!

More Distance Learning Resources

By Candace Stump