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Photo:  Helloquence/Unsplash
Photo: Helloquence/Unsplash

“How should we continue student learning during covid19?”, by Armand Doucet.

written by: Armand Doucet published 2020-03-30 updated 2020-03-31

In a previous blog post, we discussed whether we should proceed with student learning during COVID19. In this one we will look at how we should do it, reflecting on the challenges of addressing student education remotely which we call distance learning, also called remote learning in some parts of the world.

As mentioned in the previous blog post, we should be looking to take care of our student’s primary needs before looking at formal education. Once we have assessed in what situation they find themselves, we can decide are we going to progress with formal education that will directly relate to learning outcomes that they were doing in their respective classes or some learning assignments that might not be directly related, but are going to be beneficial in the long run.

While thinking of how to approach student learning during this time, make sure to think about school culture, social connectedness (especially at the younger age groups), health (both physically and mental) and the many other elements that come into play for your individual students.

Learning away from school can be effective and meaningful. The teaching and learning can take-on many forms with the choice of practice or pedagogy being diverse and age appropriate. It will vary greatly depending on the context which is influenced by the environment, social demographic and technology access. Context matters because of the vast inequities and nobody knows the context better than the school and teachers. It does not and can’t be only on-line because of these inequities. Plenty of studies support that we don’t want students staring at screens for hours on end which means that we really need to look at this from a distance learning lens. We also do not want teachers who have not had the opportunity for professional development in this area to think that they must become overnight experts. They will need professional development and help designing the distance learning experience for their students. You don’t just wake-up and put your course online. This might work in a university setting if the pedagogical approach is lecture base, but for k-12 schools it is vastly unrealistic.

Firstly, there is no one-size-fits-all in distance learning. There is a great variety of subjects and different grade levels with varying needs. Depending on the design of the learning experiences from each individual teacher, the pedagogical approach to the year or semester might not translate easily to distance learning. Some are easily translated into online or at-home environments. Others, such as those subjects with a large practical component (e.g. Physical Education, the Arts or Home Economics) or that require specialized equipment (such as Woodwork, Media or Science practical’s), are not so easily replicated outside of the physical grounds of the school. Different subjects and age groups require different approaches to distance learning.

Distance learning can involve a combination of synchronous (live learning in which students learn with the teacher at the same time) and asynchronous (students learning independently at different times) approaches. 

Distance learning doesn’t have to mirror learning as it normally does in school. In fact, trying to replicate the pace and type of work that would be done at school is unrealistic. Trusting teachers must be the starting point. Trusting teachers to plan appropriate work for their classes allows them to select how students might best use the home environment and available tools to maintain the continuity of learning during a school closure, with realistic expectations.

With these realistic expectations in mind and understanding the multiple levels of possible inequities within an individual school or class, you must think about your assessment practices. Education doesn’t need summative assessment for learning to happen. During this pandemic, looking at formative assessment and timely feedback would be how we would suggest you should proceed.

Teacher input

Teacher voice is a critical element in any successful approach.  Firstly, the teachers know their students and have been with them as the approach to school closure unfolded, receive the interpretation of students digesting and analyzing of their newsfeed as well as how they are doing from a social-emotional and mental health perspective. In plain English, they know their students.  

Teachers will know their students’ capacities for technologies and are able to best design the learning experiences that harness those tools with which students are familiar and makes most sense for their learning. Context here will be key, systems, districts and schools differ with what technological tools they use. It could be the same across the system or vary by classes in the same school. Teachers need to be trusted and empowered to deploy appropriate delivery of the distance learning, utilizing tools that are fit for purpose and relevant to the subject, content and skills being learned, as well as to the age and stage of students.

While listening to teachers is key, we also do not want to overwhelm students with inappropriate workload and expectations as teachers also feel the pressures of meeting curriculum learning outcomes. Thus, we do need to collaborate with our colleagues in our schools to make sure we approach it from a unified point of view.

A unified approach to the online component and expectations is a necessity that puts the student in the middle. As stated, we do not want our students staring at screens all day. Public health experts are urging everyone to be aggressive in their efforts to “flatten the curve” and this needs to be the priority. Everyone needs to take these actions seriously and stay safe. Formal education is secondary to this health crisis.

So, while designing the learning experience for our students through distance learning, remember Maslow before Bloom.

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Note: This blog post is based on the independent report “Thinking about pedagogy in an unfolding pandemic” written by Armand Doucet, Deborah Netolicky, Koen Timmers and Francis Jim Tuscano to inform the work of UNESCO and EI.