Five Considerations for Effective Remote Learning by Michael Fletcher

The past two years have changed the educational landscape forever. As school closures and work from home arrangements were implemented across the world, remote learning was projected from a familiar but peripheral element of educational practice to a crucial, seemingly omnipresent aspect of education systems. Our own experiences indicate growing pains and prolonged challenges. However, if we were to approach the matter objectively, such difficulties are to be expected when attempting to make such a gargantuan transformation to our teaching practice in such a short space of time. We have contributed to a project that we would never have thought possible, creating learning environments that mirror our schools and grant students access to powerful knowledge all by means of the magic of the Internet. Some things we have tried have worked perfectly. Some have crashed and burnt. But what is clear to me is that, like it or loathe it, the remarkable capacity of the Internet to offer students access to effective learning means that remote learning (in one form or another) is here to stay. Hence, as educators who wish to maintain the highest standards of teaching practice, a whole new world has opened before us. As the years go on, we will need to move from merely surviving online to generating coherent, data-backed approaches to remote learning, which necessitates sharing our experiences with colleagues and developing a sense of what remote learning best practice looks like. The following five considerations represent an attempt to organise my thoughts about the aspects of remote learning that need to be carefully pondered when planning remote learning experiences. While I appreciate that all colleagues faced issues with our students’ Internet accessibility, I consider this a logistical issue rather than a pedagogical concern, and therefore it will not be addressed in this article.

1.       Providing Effective Input

For learning to take place, students must be exposed to new information in a manner that is simultaneously simple, accessible, and engaging. The Internet provides multiple means by which to do this. One approach is synchronous presentation, which involves teaching students in real time via an application such as MS Teams. Lemov (2021) advocates that high-quality remote instruction necessitates a blend of synchronous and asynchronous methods, and synchronous presentation most closely resembles the way we provide information in the classroom. We will touch on the value of synchronous presentation later.

However, in my own context, I question the value of synchronous teaching at the presentation stage. Didau (2018) explores the value of scripted explanations in the classroom, which enables us to avoid the challenges of attempting to describe complex processes or challenging grammatical points ‘on the hop’. To reduce the level of cognitive load upon students, excellent explanations must be concise, simple, and include only the most salient information. Remote learning offers us the opportunity to prepare comprehensive and clear input for students without the pressure of the classroom context. During the remote learning period, I have done this by creating videos in advance of the class, which, with the help of extensive editing and review, enabled me to present all the key information that I wanted students to access in a manner that I was (relatively) happy with. This can also be achieved by means of audio recordings. Once the resource is produced, it can be sent to students to access, before following up on the content by means of discussion, assessment/practice, and feedback. The additional benefit of these media is that once one has generated recordings or videos of the content you wish to present, they can be used multiple times, not just for different classes in a year group, but also over the forthcoming years. One of the advantages of remote learning is that we do not have to negotiate the hustle and bustle of the classroom which can derail even the most meticulously planned explanation and can therefore produce resources that are both concise and reusable.

Another approach is to provide written explanations to students at the input phase, in the form of an article or a paragraph. Although I can see the potential of this approach, particularly for older students who may demonstrate a greater sense of autonomy in their learning, my own perception is that it is somewhat impersonal. Audio or video creates a greater sense of individual engagement with the teacher, and I believe we have all experienced the overwhelming feeling of being confronted with blocks of text. However, there is certainly scope for principled eclecticism in the way we present information, utilising all the approaches mentioned above according to the needs of our students.

2.       Checking Comprehension / Assessment of Learning

This paragraph will explore methods of assessing students’ comprehension of given content via remote learning, referring to formative assessment rather than summative. It is crucial that once information has been presented to students, we design a method by which we can check how well they have understood it. This enables us to decide upon the future direction of our lessons.

Remote learning offers multiple platforms by which we can measure our students’ understanding. It is particularly effective for short, concept-checking questions, generating immediate data as regards how well students understand content in a far more effective manner than we can do in the classroom. For example, quizzes, whether in multiple choice format or short answer questions, can indicate how well students have understood the input phase. MS forms, Google forms, and SurveyMonkey amongst others are free and relatively simple to use. I use MS forms to assess comprehension in most lessons. This creates tangible, numerical data as regards students’ ability to answer questions. If I see that a low percentage of students have answered a question correctly, this indicates that a topic has not been understood and therefore must be revisited. Therefore, the most significant benefit of online quizzing is not that it facilitates the assignment of questions to all students (which is akin to distributing a worksheet in the classroom setting), but more so that it generates immediate data with no work required of the teacher. Instead of having to mark 23 worksheets to find out how well students have grasped a topic (or even allocating up to 10 minutes to a peer assessment activity), the data is accessible at the click of a button. This could be revolutionary for teaching practice and is something I will attempt to incorporate into my classroom practice in the future. 

It is of course possible to check students’ comprehension synchronously, on a live video call or in a chat function. This offers the obvious benefit of being able to access a greater depth of insight into students’ understanding. For example, one can follow up on incorrect answers, which is a form of feedback and can benefit all present. Hence, it may be sensible to set students a short quiz checking their understanding of the lesson’s content before gathering students in a live session to further probe their comprehension and provide feedback on that which they have misunderstood. This leads us to the topic of feedback.

3.       Enabling Students to Access Meaningful Feedback

Equally important as the input phase of a learning episode is the provision of comprehensible and relevant feedback. There is very little point setting student practice tasks if we are not going to provide feedback on their performance, as simply knowing that an answer is wrong does little to increase understanding. Therefore, I faced severe challenges as regards how to most effectively draw students’ attention to the emerging gaps in their knowledge.

Feedback conventionally takes the shape of written comments or a few words of clarification. On written work, I believe that the synchronous giving of feedback is more effective than replicating similar sentences on each students’ piece of work. Once a class has submitted a writing task, I jot down notes as I read through each piece. I would then identify two or three key themes that have emerged before producing a slide outlining these central areas for improvement. Finally, I would arrange a live session with students, and spend approximately 10 minutes explaining the strengths and weakness of the piece of work, focusing particularly upon the improvements that should be made in the future. Students record the key feedback points on their piece of writing for future reference. Although the process of presenting whole class feedback could be conducted via a video or an audio recording, synchronous presentation offers the opportunity to incorporate concept checking questions and to address any confusion that may emerge.

An alternative approach incorporates using collaborative software such as Google docs. This enables teachers and peers to offer real time feedback on students’ writing. According to some colleagues, this greatly enhances the quantity of feedback that students receive on their writing, as the teacher can spend lesson time moving between online documents, helping to guide the formation of a piece of writing at each step. Feedback can be made as regards language and structure during the writing process, rather than waiting for the piece to be completed before providing comments. In that case, a student can receive feedback on their writing more than once every lesson, rather than once every few weeks. I experienced the benefits of providing feedback via collaborative writing software when helping students with the UCAS personal statements this year. I was impressed by how quickly information could be exchanged and noticed how swiftly students made progress compared to when the process was conducted in school.

4.       Maintaining School ‘Culture’

One of the dangers of remote learning for both students and teachers is isolation. Once the memory of the classroom begins to fade, students may become more distant, perhaps suffering from a lack of the contextualisation that school culture provides for their learning. Therefore, it is difficult for remote learning to operate effectively without some synchronous element. To see the teacher’s face, to hear the voices of peers, and to replicate some of the fun of the classroom are all very important if we are going to maintain the engagement of our students. It is also part of the teacher’s responsibility to maintain a sense of gravitas around the learning process. Students who succumb to the temptation to see remote learning as of less significance than that which takes place in school will not approach online classes with the same mindset, limiting the effectiveness of the learning process. Therefore, whilst of course being empathetic as regards the challenges of both remote learning and life during lockdown, it is in the interests of our students for us to model discipline and positive behaviour by affording every lesson the respect it is deserving of. This includes following up on those who are absent and setting clear (realistic) deadlines for classwork tasks. By means of maintaining a culture that is as close to school as possible, we can encourage students to stay focused and to maintain engagement with the learning process. In times as challenging as these, school routines can be one of the most important tools for maintaining students’ mental health, as purpose and cognitive activity helps to maintain a sense of normality in what is truly an unusual time.

5.       Principled Use of Technology and Simplicity

There are seemingly countless educational applications and programmes flooding the market, emboldened by the extraordinary circumstances we have faced over the past two years. There are many applications which are genuinely valuable. There are some which are reinventing the wheel or bring very little to our practice. Therefore, we must be principled in our use of ‘edtech’, selecting technology according to its ability to support the achievement of our learning objectives. Technology is neither inherently good nor bad. It is a vehicle that we can use to help students reach learning goals. We must avoid the temptation to utilise every application on the market, or to believe that the value of a remote lesson is determined by how much technology we employ. Sometimes, the most effective remote lessons are extremely simple, utilising basic resources and accessible channels of communication. We must remember that the purpose of every learning episode is learning itself, and the applications or resources used in a lesson exist only to facilitate that ultimate end. Hence, experimentation with different software is to be encouraged, but critical engagement is also required. How is this application enhancing the quality of my students’ learning? As with all teaching, the learning objectives of a remote lesson come first. If the available applications support the achievement of those learning objectives, then they should be employed. Otherwise, do not feel pressured to attach bells and whistles to your lessons. Often, the simplest approaches are the most effective, both for in-person and remote learning.

References

Didau, D. (2018). Scripts: whose lesson is it anyway?  David Didau. https://learningspy.co.uk/learning/scripts/

Lemov, D. (2020). Mastering Remote Teaching- Intro: Two types of Learning. Teach Like a Champion. https://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/mastering-remote-teaching-intro-two-types-of-learning/

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *