Learning From A Distance? 6 Tips To Do It Well

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March 23rd, 2020

With the situation across the country developing at a rapid pace, most schools are shifting to a virtual learning environment to accommodate their students. Some schools may have the capacity and infrastructure already set up to support a full transition to virtual learning, while others may be ramping up resources to put a plan together. 

No matter your situation, we’ve put together the following tips that can be applied to optimize your student engagement in a remote environment. 

1. Be proactive in your communication with students

Communicating effectively and clearly to your students is paramount. More than ever, they’ll be relying on your lead to help them figure out where to receive instruction, how to navigate the new interface, and where to submit assignments. Here, it might be beneficial to record an introductory video to help your students adjust and walk through some of the basic housekeeping items in your course. 

With the sudden, drastic changes seemingly by the day, you’ll need to make the most of your communication tools. Chat rooms (via apps like Discord), direct/text messages, emails, and forum boards are widely effective for two-way communication. Send friendly reminders for students to stay on track and remind them of any upcoming deadlines. As much as possible, continue your usual instruction and assessment feedback loops: provide timely feedback that allows them to internalize their areas of strength and weakness, and if they’re falling behind in any specific area, set aside time to address the topic with them. 

Finally, try to make time to send personal messages to your students—whether in an email, video, or text message. Every little step in communication will go a long way towards helping your students adjust to the rapid changes.

2. Introduce social and gamification aspects

Community is an aspect of learning that’s easy to take for granted, especially when it’s baked into a typical in-person school day. With students in isolation, it’s important to continue to foster a communal setting as much as possible.  

Gamification is a good element to keep your students engaged while incentivizing them in their path of learning. When you offer rewards for completing key sections such as badges, stars, points, and certificates, students will feel commended for performance and be more likely to stay invested. If your platform doesn’t enable these features, you can opt for manually creating spreadsheets that can track leaderboards, levels, and progress. 

Also, encourage them to chime in on forum discussions and stay active in conversations. Although this will not fully replace in-person dialogue, it can serve as a means of connection. By rewarding performance and allowing them to interact, you’ll encourage students to deepen their engagement and increase their investment in their virtual learning. 

3. Include a variety of external sources

Does your class allow for the use of external sources? If so, you should consider pulling from a slew of different news outlets. For example, if you conduct a history, ELA, or science course, think about tying in timely news articles, latest research, video clips, government policies, or other trustworthy opinions. 

When events in the news are preoccupying most of your students’ attention, actively incorporating world events into class activities will help them feel informed and keep their interest in the subject at hand. It will also relate your course to the current developments and discourse that’s happening in the broader world. Educators often talk about making learning applicable to the real world—there’s no better time to do that than now.

4. Be mindful of attention spans

As with a live classroom, it’s a good practice to consider all the different learners and personalities in your classroom. There are a mix of introverts, extroverts, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. For some, it might be difficult to lock in and watch a lecture video for 45 minutes straight. Others might struggle with combing through slides that feature huge chunks of text. 

As such, consider a way to break up the way the material is presented. This might include featuring relevant images and video clips or random surveys at the end of each section. You could also leverage apps (like Kahoot!) that allow kids to review subject matter in a virtual gaming format. Just adding these simple touches can help your students process information better and keep them tuned in.  

5. Focus on the long-term, bigger picture 

Children and adults alike can feel distracted and concerned by the developing news around them. Along with our social-emotional and mental health, it’s important to motivate your students to remember the purpose of their learning. Helping them to see the bigger picture and reminding them of the reason for learning is just as essential to the learning itself. It’ll not only help them with mastery of course material in the short-term, but it will also spur them on to take ownership over their self-learning in the long run. 

6. Support and empower parents and guardians

Many guardians have been thrust unexpectedly into the role of homeschool teacher. This is quite an adjustment and can leave many feeling frantic and unprepared. How do I add structure to my kid’s day? How can I keep my kid on track? How do I balance homeschooling while also working from home?  

In light of this, it’s vital that you support and equip the parents to guide their kids. One way is to provide ideas around how they can structure the day. This can be useful in establishing an expected pattern and sense of normalcy in their daily routines. 

You can also point them to the various resources available to assist in their teaching. Organizations like Khan Academy offer hundreds of instructional videos that are free for viewing on their website and app, with content covering a wide range of subjects.

In this unique situation, you may find that it’s equally important to frequently check in with guardians as it is with students. Adults may struggle to feel engaged in distance learning just as much as children are, especially after extended periods of time. Things like frequent and personalized communication, focusing on the big picture, and tracking progress toward realistic goals can help guardians stay engaged as well. 

Helping parents to navigate this uncharted territory can make a big difference in the success of a student’s learning journey.

Summary

Implementing these six tips is a good foundation for your online classroom experience. Although this period of time will present new challenges, it can also be an opportunity to expand your instruction and explore new ways to engage with your students. 

Have any other interesting ideas or methods that might work? Feel free to share them in the comments section below!

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Looking for more resources around supporting remote learners? Check out our Distance Learning Community Page for free resources for your team, including webinars, professional learning activities, articles, product tips, and more.

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Illuminate Education partners with K-12 educators to equip them with data to serve the whole child and reach new levels of student performance. Our solution brings together holistic data and collaborative tools and puts them in the hands of educators. Illuminate supports over 17 million students and 5200 districts/schools.

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