Thursday, March 5, 2020

Distance Learning Under Pressure: Getting Your School Ready in a Short Time

For many out there, school closure due to the recent spread of COVID-19 has been on for weeks. My own school in Japan has just closed for a week, with a few short days to get our community prepared for distance learning with care, confidence, and professionalism. Considering that this may happen elsewhere I thought I would share this experience with some expertise from an experienced educator who has taught via distance learning, Sarah Sutter (@edueyeview), Next Vista for Learning, and a little research. Hopefully, we will learn from this and have plans in place in the future.

I’ll post some tools later, but this post is about best practices to consider. It should not be considered authoritative but rather some food for thought. My overarching suggestion is: keep it simple.

Empathy for Everyone, Especially Students
Your plan has to have the situation of students in mind first.
  • Some may be nervous as to why the school is closed and will need emotional support. Others will be impacted by being away from their friends and “cooped up” at home. Guide your teachers in resisting the urge to give more work to “catch up” if some days have been missed - this is stressful.
  • Consult with your counselors and well-being faculty to provide suggestions that help the community maintain a healthy social-emotional balance. There also needs to be a plan for EAL and SEN students, who may have heightened stress from not having face-to-face, in-person contact with adults they trust. 
Everyone else is important, too.
  • Parents may have several children across two or three divisions in a school. It’s possible they are navigating several learning management systems (LMS). Don’t add anything new, as this can create stress and/or confusion. 
  • Staff tend to be the ones dealing with mailing lists, attendance, first-receivers of questions. They will be extremely busy. (and without them, our schools don’t function!) Show them our appreciation. 
  • Teachers inevitably have a range of skills using technology and comfort levels to match. It can be extremely stressful for some. Appropriate support for faculty as they dive headfirst into e-learning will reduce stress and help faculty come together. 
Getting Set Up for E-learning
If possible, take a few days to train and consult with faculty and staff, while giving students time off of lessons. This is vital for a smooth rollout. Keep students and parents informed of the plan as it evolves, and as appropriate. No surprises.
  • Assess the Capabilities of Staff. This requires staff to be honest, and leaders to be non-judgemental. If learning with technology was so important before, then the entire faculty would have already been prepared for this. Approach staff who have tech skills but may not be IT staff to share expertise - they’ll be happy to share!
  • Choose Your Platforms. This is not the time to introduce a new platform. Go with what the community knows. Well-known ones may include: Google Suite for Education, Microsoft 365 Education, Powerschool, ManageBac, Blackboard, Moodle, Seesaw.
  • Choose your video platform. Google Hangouts Meet, Zoom, Skype in the Classroom. Stick with what your community knows. All of these have an invite feature. (Google, for example, dos this in the Meet app or through Google Calendar)
  • Prepare Contact/Mailing Lists. Ideally, someone has set each teacher up with mailing lists for each individual class. You’ll need it to invite students to online meetings and for any other messaging from their teachers.  
  • Prepare Your Faculty. Be sure to have a plan in place for: taking attendance (our school is calling it “engagement”, in which we flag students not engaged over a couple of classes); managing screen time; appropriate homework, if any; establishing a balance of formats for activities and lessons - some “live” lessons and some check-ins with independent work; methods for ensuring student accountability.
Envisioning Lesson Structure(s)
As with on-campus teaching, the grade level you teach will determine how to approach this. Younger students will likely need a daily plan in which parents/family members help them at home. “Chunking” work is a good approach at all levels. For older students, this is an approach I and come colleagues are taking, keeping in mind that every lesson doesn’t have to be a “live” lesson:
  • A brief welcome and taking of attendance via conference call (it’s best to have group norms have been established beforehand or early); also keep in mind you may want to do a temperature check (I chose on the first day to have students choose an emoji from www.getemoji.com to express how they’re feeling)
  • Explanation of the activity and the lesson. Keep it to one activity. Chunk work in small bits. Encourage students to leverage peers to help with understanding. (you should have it in a written space, but also could record the explanation to help with understanding, allowing students to work at their own pace)
  • Provide opportunities for face-to-face time (the “human” element”) by which students break into smaller online groups to work. They’ll likely choose Facetime, WeChat, or other tools to communicate - this will provide comfort while they use tools they know. 
  • Closure. Student accountability can be made with exit tickets or submissions of demonstrations of learning and/or engagement. It could be submitting photos of work, work submitted via Google Classroom, Drive, or other platforms, comments in online forums. 
Recording Tutorial Videos
There are a large number of tools to record tutorials, activity explanations, etc. (here is one list) Many already exist on YouTube (see the learning channel or teachers channel), Khan Academy, Vimeo, and other video hosting platforms. You can make your own with tools like:
Activity and Assessment Ideas
  • A student portfolio with tools such as Google Sites, Blogger, Weebly, Wix
  • Google Docs or Forms - quizzes, tests, or assignments
  • Online forums where students respond to a prompt (I'll have a separate post on this)
  • Creation of a video/screencast where the student demonstrates understanding of a concept or problem (there are free screencasting apps)
  • A creative piece of work with image tools such as Google Earth Projects, Google My Maps, Sutori, Thinglink
  • Collaborate with group members on a presentation (Google Slides for the presentation, and Google Hangouts / Google Hangouts Meet for the planning)
  • Podcasting (see the Anchor app, which allows you to do this VERY easily with a smartphone)
  • Buncee
  • Book Creator
There is clearly more to e-learning, but the next posts will have practical tools for teachers such as tutorials on creating tutorials and online discussion forums!

For a really good, detailed narrative, check out Next Vista for Learning by educator, author, humanitarian, Rushton Hurley.

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