The Dos and Don’ts of Distance Learning in a Pandemic

“The more we can simplify things, the better.”

The spread of the coronavirus pandemic has produced a cascade of school closings. Yesterday, the governor of Kansas announced that the state’s entire public school system will be closed through the end of the school year. Many schools suddenly must shift to distance learning. To help schools and school systems navigate that transition, FutureEd Director Thomas Toch explored the new education landscape with Brad Rathgeber, the head of school and chief executive of One Schoolhouse, a highly regarded, nonprofit online school that partners with 160 public and private schools worldwide to supplement their school-based instruction and to provide professional development for faculty members working in the online space.

Toch: How should school leaders think about the massive task they’re facing?

Photo of Brad Rathgeber
Brad Rathgeber

Rathgeber: There are three overriding principles that can help school leaders as they figure this out, and they’re really super simple.

The first is to just be calm and pause. That sounds like a simple recommendation, but we all understand that school’s not the most important thing right now, safety is.

The second is to be straightforward and clear. People have heightened anxiety and may not be able to process all of the information that we’re throwing at them in the same way that they might otherwise be able to. So the more that school leaders can be straightforward and clear with their guidance and recommendations for families, it’s going to be helpful.

And the third is to try to create simple solutions. In a crisis situation, simple technology is the best technology. So be careful in trying to teach faculty new skills during a time of crisis. They’ll be less able to adapt and less able to process information themselves. So those are the kind of overriding principles.

What are the first steps school leaders should take?

If you’re in a school system that has not shut yet, make sure students have as many learning materials as possible to take home with them. Get them backpack-ready.

Then, for middle and high schools, think about moving to a distance-learning model. I’m choosing those words carefully. We’re moving to a distance-learning model, not an online-learning model.

In a distance-learning model, you’re taking the components of a typical school day and moving them to some type of online or remote-learning equivalent and you’re using the same pedagogy that you use in face-to-face courses. You’re trying to create a remote-learning equivalence of what you would do in school classrooms.

The easiest way to do this is to create a simplified schedule of the school day and have class times and meetings be “conference-room meetings” instead of in-person meetings. They could be video conference rooms, they could be audio conference rooms, they could be app-based conference rooms, or, ideally, use of a platform that allows for all three.

For example, instead of Algebra 1 meeting in Room 123, students are meeting in Ms. Smith’s Zoom classroom or Zoom conference room that’s accessible both from a computer, from an app that might be available on a phone, or a telephone dial-in. Providing different types of access helps reach the greatest number of students possible.

And helps address the digital divide in education between more and less affluent students.

Yes, as best as we can, right? Given the speed of this transition, this is probably the best option, using different types of platforms that the faculty are familiar with.

In online learning, you adopt a different pedagogical approach to use time and space differently. Often, the courses are asynchronous and class-paced. Meaning that kids have great flexibility over the course of any given week to complete the learning and the assignments. Some online classes are totally student-paced, where they have even greater flexibility across the course of a quarter or a semester or perhaps even a full year. So you are really rethinking the learning environment from a much broader perspective.

That obviously would be a bridge too far under current circumstances.

Yes. It takes us six months to train faculty members who are pretty competent coming in to do online instruction well. So we think that that’s a bridge too far right now. And I will say at the same time, it’s also some skill set that you should be thinking about for the future, building into your faculty professional development programs.

So the distinction between distance learning and online learning is super important and one that will help put teachers at ease. There’s a lot of anxiety related to moving to an online learning model. Distance learning is less complicated, and that’s what we should be focusing on as schools close in the face of the coronavirus.

Schools should in effect try to keep the school day intact? First period, second period, third period, lunch.

I would, but perhaps make it a little simpler than what we might do in a physical school. School schedules can tend to be complex. The more we can simplify things in this situation, the better. I also don’t think that we should underestimate or under-resource social-emotional checkpoints for kids. So maybe you have an all-school meeting on the video platform to start the day off. Maybe you have times for teachers to meet with an advisory group or a grade-level meeting or other types of social-emotional checkpoints.

Would you do that every day?

Yes. I’d try to build in one social-emotional checkpoint, one type of community checkpoint at least once a day. It could take various forms. It could be just a teacher meeting with 20 kids, checking in to see how life’s going for them or checking to see how the technology is working for them.

Does that mean you teach fewer courses or you do away with electives?

That depends in part on the contract that you have with your teachers and the flexibility they have built into those contract requirements. But you may think about not offering elective classes for some period of time, especially as you’re getting going. It’s easier to make things more complex later. So in weeks one and two, you’re trying to create a super, super simple schedule for your teachers and students to follow. And you may add some complexities back in week three or week five or week six, when everybody’s kind of settled into a rhythm.

The other thing that schools should be cognizant of is that teachers may get sick, and you may need a large cadre of substitute teachers. And it may be easier to draw upon those substitute teachers from your elective teaching corps. That’s another reason why I would pull back from trying to do everything online from the start, to boil things down to an academic core to start.

Elementary and secondary schools seemingly will have to respond differently. How are you thinking about that challenge?

The model I’ve been describing is suited to a high school experience and almost certainly a middle school experience. When you’re getting into lower grade levels, you’re probably thinking about things a little bit differently.

Elementary teachers want to be thinking about creating a weekly packet of learning activities for students to do with their parents or other caregivers, resources that students will have access to at home from their backpacks. And perhaps thinking about other online resources that students may already regularly use within their classrooms. Of course, that’s going to be school-by-school or district-by-district dependent.

We also would encourage schools to do some type of weekly synchronous check-in with elementary students and their families, using that same type of platform that we were talking about at a middle school or an upper school. And making sure that you’re focusing on social-emotional wellness and community building rather than instruction during that time.

So you wouldn’t maintain the general contours of the school day for elementary school children. Rather, you’d give them material to work on and let their parents work with them independently?

That’s the baseline idea. Since we know it’s not just parents but grandparents, other relatives and even older siblings who are providing support, it’s probably just not reasonable at younger grade levels to expect a normal school day to continue in a remote situation. But that should be a school-by-school, district-by-district decision, too.

What about teacher training?

Again, we don’t want to be training faculty in a tremendous number of new skills going into this distance-learning experience. Teachers are in crisis mode, too. But doing some simple training in using video platforms would be helpful for middle grades and upper grades teachers. As would some baseline training in crafting assignments that work well in distance-learning environments. And a third thing, depending on the level of sophistication of the school’s learning management system, would be training teachers in the use of online discussion boards to continue class conversations outside of the school day.

Do you envision principals working with their teachers at a distance as well,  team meetings, professional development of some sort?

I would encourage schools to continue those meetings, to have regular check-ins. Again, as much for community building and their teachers’ own wellness as anything else. Teachers are already feeling and will continue to feel a tremendous amount of pressure and stress. Making sure that they have the support of school leaders is going to be super important.

What about assessments, tests, papers?

That’s probably something that you’re working out within your own school a couple of weeks into running the new distance-learning platform. I would encourage schools to put a bit of a pause on tests and assessments during at least the first week, if not the first two weeks. In part because you’re going to want to get your policies straight and consistent across your schools or your school districts. I can imagine in some scenarios school districts thinking about having parents proctor assessments. I can imagine other school districts thinking that’s just not feasible. There could be a wide range of those things. I would put a pause on testing at the start, until school districts can sort out these sorts of issues.

Other thoughts?

Administrators should think about creating a communications schedule with families. So that families can know when they should expect to hear from administrators. And to create some type of feedback loops so that you know what user experience is. You’re designing programs and policies on the fly. It’s important to signal that to families, to send a supportive message: “We’re doing our best. We know we are going to have to change as we go along. So we’re going to solicit your feedback and make changes incrementally as we go through the coming weeks together.”

Thomas Toch is director of FutureEd.

This piece originally appeared on the FutureEd website. FutureEd is an independent, solution-oriented think tank at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Follow on Twitter at @futureedGU

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