iDEAL Blog Post: Distanced Learning FAQs

-Ashley Ireland

 Since the pandemic hit in March, the iDEAL institute has worked with hundreds of public, private, and charter schools and thousands of teachers on their distance learning efforts. We’ve seen the vast variability in what distance learning looks and sounds like across the U.S., often differing greatly across states, districts, and even across classrooms. Teachers, school leaders, and parents everywhere are trying their best to work with the difficult circumstances, often with little to know guidance. Subsequently, we field a lot of questions about best practices for distance learning—with this post we hope to address the most common of them. Although many of the components here can be applied through graduate level instruction, we will focus our answers to those teaching in mostly self-contained K-8 settings.

Question: When and what should I teach with synchronous teaching and when and what should be asynchronous?

Answer: Whole group synchronous learning (via Zoom or other video-based platform) should be used sparingly for SEL or targeted small group instruction only.

Synchronous learning (or instruction and learning that occurs at the same time—often via Zoom, or some other video-based platform during distanced learning) is a vital component for sustained learning. It is important for students from the primary grades, through secondary and even tertiary levels to have live interaction with their instructors. Although specific research on distance learning is (obviously) lacking for these unprecedented times, it’s been well documented that students perform better when they have formed emotional bonds with their teachers (Darling-Hammond, 2003; Goddard & Goddard, 2001)) and when they are in small group and 1-1 settings receiving targeted instruction (Foorman & Torgesen, 2001). This is why we at the iDEAL institute advise that synchronous time be dedicated to Social Emotional Learning (SEL) focused interactions or small group targeted instruction.

We advise teachers to begin the day synchronously for the whole class for a Morning Meeting. This gives teachers the chance to check in with the emotional well-being of their students (an always vital role of the teacher), as well as establish and communicate the day’s learning objectives. They can also use this time to accomplish practical tasks they may have to do such as taking attendance or making announcements. The Morning Meeting should be emotionally focused, with the aim of building class culture, and addressing the emotional well-being of the students. Check out iDEAL’s examples of a distance learning Morning Meeting here. You may also want to end the day synchronously and whole group to anchor the day and again check in with students’ emotional state.

Outside of whole group SEL focused meetings, we also advise that teachers use synchronous learning for small group targeted instruction in math and reading. It would be best for these targeted groups to meet daily, but understand this may be difficult, so advise that these meetings go on a minimum of once a week for both math and reading. Just as with in-person teaching, it is far easier for teachers to formatively assess, explicitly instruct, and interact with small groups of students than a full class so teachers often spend far less time on Zoom with their small group. Often 20-30 minutes with a small group of targeted meaningful instruction can replace hours of Zoom instruction. You may find iDEAL’s ideal weekly distance learning schedule here.

Outside of SEL and small group focused, likely everything else should be asynchronous.

Question: Shouldn’t direct and explicit instruction (lecture) be synchronous and on zoom?

Answer: No, probably not.

If you are presenting content, i.e. teaching a lesson or content, I bet you’d prefer (like all of us) to do it in-person, live, whole-group with all your students. Of course, you would. So it seems logical that doing it on Zoom is the next best thing. Except that it isn’t. Teaching on Zoom will never be able to replace teaching in a real life classroom. No matter how many features they add, Zoom just cannot replace real teaching. Instead of trying to get technology to be as close to in-person teaching as possible, we need to think about the capabilities of technology that cannot be done in the classroom. What can’t be done in a live lecture? Pause. Rewind. Re-watch. If you are going to teach content, a mini-lesson, explicit instruction, this should always be captured on video and posted. You may even be able to find a subject matter expert that has already made a video on YouTube and simply post that. Better yet, take that video and make an interactive EdPuzzle. With a video recording or EdPuzzle creation you do not have to worry about a student missing the content because of poor connectivity, a parent’s contrasting schedule, or other conflict. They can watch it when it works for them and their family situation. And better yet, if they struggle with comprehension or language, they are able to pause, rewind and rewatch you (or the expert) at will. Tech will never replace real life, stop acting like it can. Use tech for what it is, not what it is not.

Question: What’s the best way to present asynchronous learning?

We’ve seen it all. From the use of every LMS out there to emails, checklists, must-dos and may-dos, required assignments and everything in between, there is a tremendous amount of variability on how asynchronous materials are communicated to students.

Answer: Use learning boards to provide students voice and choice in how they finish their assignments.

At iDEAL, we advocate for learning boards. Learning boards allow for instructional and planning flexibility and provide students with voice and choice around the activities they pursue for the day. There is ample research that supports providing students variation and choice in their activities and this process also allows for the elements of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to be easily integrated, enabling students to demonstrate their learning through a variety of modalities. You can see an ideal template here.

Question: What supplies should I assume my students have access to at home?

Answer: Nothing you haven’t given them, and maybe not even that. 

This pandemic is highlighting class disparities. The digital divide is one thing; access to stable internet, working devices (that aren’t currently being utilized by a sibling or parent), materials, a place to learn from, and adults that are willing and able to help is another. With that in mind, don’t count on students having materials at home. Ideally, all work should be equally accessible via cellphone, laptop, or tablet, so that those students who do not have consistent access to a device or stable internet connection can still learn. 

As for learning materials: workbooks, paper, pencils, paper. If you have sent them home with your students you can assume they have them at home, but you can’t assume that they are learning from home.  Many children are being shuttled off to other family members' homes for care as parents are trying to piece together childcare so they have the time and space to do their own work. Circumstances aren’t great right now for many families. In fact many of our students, some as young as 1st and 2nd grade, are doubling as caretakers for their younger siblings while their parents struggle to stay employed. It’s hard. Let’s give everyone a break. Please don’t  rely on them having specific materials at the ready for their work, if you must, give them plenty of warning or keep it part of the structure and routine. Most importantly, do not ever expect students to print out material you send to them or their parents… printers are expensive as is ink. And more importantly there is always a better alternative to a worksheet, ALWAYS.

Question: Should I be giving homework along with distance learning?

Answer: No, just no.

 Let’s be real honest here: if we are in a distance education situation, it’s all “homework” at this point. And need I remind you we are all living through a literal pandemic? Parents are stressed. Life is hard and confusing and so stressful. Homework just adds to that. If kids (or parents) want more work, have them complete more activities in the learning board (see above), or have them do more time on their adaptive software programs. Even outside a pandemic we at iDEAL would recommend the same homework should consist of at home reading and optional extra time on an engaging adaptive software program (think Prodigy).

Research around the effectiveness of homework is bleak. It likely doesn’t help at all under normal circumstances, some evidence says it may even be harmful. So with that in mind, and that fact that we are truly in unprecedented times…Let the kids play!