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A Close-up View of Distance Learning

  • CWIL
  • Teaching and Learning
Mrs. Vicky Yatzus

The challenges, surprises, and successes of a school year unlike any other.

Looking back, no one knew that the last “normal” day of the 2019-20 school year for most students in the United States would happen in March 2020. For many schools, mid-March marked the last days that teachers and students would spend together in person. And, no one truly knew what was to come. Schools nationwide - indeed worldwide - found themselves in the position of having to scramble, to quickly pivot to a new virtual environment.

As it happened, the need to adapt came suddenly. Just as we began to learn more and more about the COVID-19 pandemic and schools began to plan for the possibility that in-person learning might be interrupted at some point, that point arrived. 

For The Independence School, it was all new and very challenging, but we committed with full force. We got feedback on our efforts as we went, and we got better at it as the weeks progressed. As in any challenging situation, we looked for lessons we could carry forward and any opportunities for wins.

Those opportunities ranged from the chance to accelerate technology adoption, to explore new approaches for assessing student achievement, and to think even more rigorously about the most effective ways to present curricular content. 

Good Teaching

One of the most basic insights confirmed by schools’ sudden immersion in distance learning was that, “Good teaching is good teaching.” In other words, the most important skills and techniques teachers use to engage and empower students in person tend to be the same ones key to success in distance learning.
Some teachers found that maintaining some of the same elements of regular in-person classes with distance learning could work. It took new and different strategies to involve students in online classes, but if a teacher is skilled in keeping students engaged, we learned they will participate in productive class discussions and thrive.
Twists and Tweaks

None of this, however, should suggest that learning mediated through digital platforms was identical to the classroom experience. One fundamental reality to be confronted is that distance learning is simply more distant. Even adults have trouble staying focused as Zoom meetings wear on. The research shows it, and we all know it. At Independence, for example, we worked together to modify class schedules. We would rarely be live and online for the full 48 minutes of a period. Part of what would typically be class period time was set aside for independent work where lessons could be completed asynchronously.

Effective teaching recognizes and responds to the natural limits on learners’ attention spans, and when working virtually, those attention spans can be particularly short. Mike Gwaltney, a nationally respected expert on distance learning who conducted a multi-day professional development workshop with Independence faculty, cites six minutes as an important benchmark. A single video or activity running longer than this limit seriously risks losing its audience.
Teachers recognized that they have to use a multitude of ways of reaching students - as they do with in-person instruction - and that there is a need to change approaches frequently. For instance, shifting from whole-class activities to break-out rooms, from group discussion to independent work, from live interaction to asynchronous learning.

Another important adjustment was to scale back expectations about the total scope of content that was possible to cover - prioritizing, focusing in, and aiming for depth of understanding. There’s just no way we could move as fast over as much material, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t do good, meaningful work.
Re-assessing Assessment

Faculty members agree that one of the greatest challenges of working remotely is the difficulty of reading student reactions. In a physical classroom, good teachers sense when students are keeping up and when it’s time to pause and review. But Zoom as a medium is very flat. You’re looking at a grid of tiny faces, and they are very hard to interpret.
In response, teachers came to rely on more frequent and different forms of assessment, particularly formative measures designed to allow students to demonstrate - and to themselves understand - how well they were comprehending the material as a lesson or unit progressed. (These are in contrast with summative assessments, like exams, that come at the end of a unit, too late for teachers to make real-time adjustments.) 
The goal is to see what the students know. It’s also to let them use their strengths and show them off - one more way to keep them engaged and feeling positive.

A Sense of Connection

Perhaps the most profound insight confirmed through the experience of distance learning was one that transcends the purely academic. It is that connections between students and their friends and between students and their teachers are irreplaceable and essential to learning. Children learn best in social settings. We know from research the power of the social and emotional components of school, but now we know it firsthand, too.
We realized early on that time needed to be set aside specifically for nurturing personal connections - sparking dialogue, playing games, chatting with classmates.     

Perhaps for all of us, among the most vital lessons we have learned through distance learning is the need for flexibility.

Vicky Yatzus is Independence's fourth Head of School, assuming the role in 2008. She is also a team member of the Center for Wellness, Innovation and Learning (CWIL™).

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