Given that many schools (and entire school districts) may be closed down during the coronavirus outbreak, I decided to write this post with recommendations for schools that may attempt to implement online learning during this time.
I read through this review of the research on online learning, which contains these high-level recommendations. There are some caveats with this research, especially given that most research on online learning has been done with older students and that the sample sizes with k to 12 students are relatively small. That being said, some evidence for effectiveness is better than no evidence at all. A further caveat: these recommendations are based on effect sizes, which I have not included since they are notoriously unreliable to compare.
- Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.
If your school is closed completely, then this may be impossible. That being said, online programs such as Zoom or Big Marker may allow for some “face to face” interaction to occur. These programs will also help with the next recommendation.
- Effect sizes were larger for studies in which the online instruction was collaborative or instructor-directed than in those studies where online learners worked independently.
This basically means that you should design activities that are either led by a teacher or activities that have students work together in small groups. Resources like Google Docs and Skype will be helpful for students working together but given the high possibility that some students will engage in off-task and/or anti-social behaviour (such as teasing or bullying), having some moderation and oversight of these online spaces will be helpful.
- Elements such as video or online quizzes do not appear to influence the amount that students learn in online classes.
Creating a bunch of video lessons of a talking head working through some math problems and then quizzing students on what they have learned afterwards is not supported by the existing evidence on online learning. Given that educator planning time is in short supply, it’s probably best to plan other types of activities.
- Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection.
A good example of a program that allows for this is Geogebra. See for example this set of constructions puzzles that require students to think and make decisions while they work through the problems.
Another example is the DreamBox Learning math program, which also requires students to actively engage with mathematics. Disclaimer: I work for DreamBox Learning as a mathematician and senior curriculum designer.
- Providing guidance for learning for groups of students appears less successful than using such mechanisms with individual learners.
This recommendation suggests that feedback and support for students should be individualized for online learning, rather than given to the entire group. This does not necessarily mean that one should avoid providing scaffolds (such as guiding questions) to the entire group or that teachers necessarily need to work with individual students, only that whatever guidance and feedback is provided, it should be directed where possible to individual students.
Based on my experience as a parent to my sons, who have both engaged with online learning and are in elementary school and high school right now, I have some further recommendations.
- Actively engage the learning guardians of students in the process of learning.
My sons’ experiences have been far more productive when we have sat down with them while they work through the online course material. This does not mean that we do the work for our children, but rather than we are there to support, encourage, and nurture their development as learners.
It will be helpful to offer explicit advice for how learning guardians can support their learners, especially given the range of knowledge and experience those learning guardians will bring to the task. You may even want to include videos of what class looks like and descriptions of instructional routines that learning guardians can use with their learners.
Also, offer suggestions of activities to learning guardians that they can do with their children in their care that are not on a computer and do not require the learning guardians to be experts in any particular subject matter.
- Skip watch-the-video-then-fill-in-the-blank-spaces activities.
I can say from experience that these types of activities are ubiquitous in online learning and result in nearly no learning. I watched my son listen to a video in one tab while dutifully recording the answers in his worksheet in another. I quizzed him 5 minutes later and he could remember literally nothing at all from the worksheet or the video.
Given that completing these particular courses was a requirement at his school, I taught him a much more productive learning strategy. First, attempt the worksheet and fill in every blank, even if one has to guess. Next, watch the entire video without writing or doing anything else. Now go back to the worksheet and change as many of the answers as one can without going back to the video. Rewatch or listen to the video with the worksheet and change answers as necessary. This is still a terrible experience but it at least has the possibility to result in some learning.
- Provide devices for students to work if at all possible or at least ensure that any online learning activities can be completed with a smartphone.
While access to computers and the Internet keeps increasing, there are still households that do not have access and so providing equitable access to resources to all families is a key responsibility of schools, particularly when expecting students to engage in online learning.
- Where possible, engage students in synchronous activities rather than asynchronous activities.
One of the more successful online classes my son took was with the Art of Problem Solving. Each week my son met with the entire class in an online chat program where the teacher mostly posed questions and occasionally told the students information, while the students responded to the questions in the online platform. He also had a physical textbook, a bank of unlimited practice problems to work on, and challenging problems to complete each week. The chat program was nothing amazing, but it mostly kept my son engaged for the full 90-minute sessions.
- Use simple assignments that do not require students to navigate complex instructions.
Even with assignments with simple instructions, there is a lot of potential for student learning. Given that your students will be working remotely and with limited direct support, you don’t want students spending too much of their time figuring out what they are trying to accomplish.
What other recommendations for teachers and schools who may be suddenly engaged in online learning do you have? What question do you have that I have not yet answered?