Prioritizing Human Connection When Social Distancing Is the New Norm
School leaders and administrative teams across the country are weighing alternatives and contingency plans for combating the spread of COVID-19. With outright closure appearing to be the best option for “flattening the curve,” many are wisely pointing out that massive moves to online teaching and learning will likely require more training and support than can be mustered on an emergency basis.
Online education experts and technologists are offering up advice and training to help. But even assuming the availability of proper devices and the internet, the inconsistency of support and capacity available will likely exacerbate existing gaps. Put bluntly, access is not the same as equity.
The decision leaders are making to close schools, then, is a wrenching one. Not just because of the potential for lost learning time (a considerable challenge with potentially long-lasting effects), but because of the very real, critical role schools serve for students on a daily basis. Beyond the physical supports of school (food, warmth, safe spaces), kids need interaction with peers and caring adults for development. Making the effort to keep engaging students, even if we have to do it remotely, is worth it and, for some, likely life-saving.
So how do we begin to work through this challenge? It’s tempting to jump directly into technical conversations about tool selection, content provision, and lesson design—these are important planning components. However, a question I’d rather start with is this: In a time requiring literal distance, how will we ensure continued interpersonal and emotional connection across our learning communities?
Between Learners and Teachers
A feeling of connection with one’s teacher is crucial for perseverance, satisfaction, motivation, and affect, and students report lower “teacher presence” in online settings. Given this, figuring out how educators remain visible to learners and creating more touchpoints is critical.
Teachers can do this through one-on-one check-ins and goal-setting via phone or video, by embedding audio and video messages into their communications, and being active in online discussions. Following these steps might take more time, so teaching teams might also consider working together across groups of students (for example, having one teacher record a lesson for all groups, freeing up time for one-on-one check-ins).
Leaders and teachers should consider how they will foster deeper peer-to-peer collaboration, support, and academic and non-academic dialogue among students. Many tools have built-in features like discussion boards. But making time for social engagement activities through smaller video discussion groups, daily learning buddy check-ins, or open video “office hours” could also be helpful.
It’s worth considering how non-instructional leaders like guidance counselors might create touchpoints for processing and question-asking as well.
Even in the best of in-person school conditions, teaching can feel isolating. As educators work to figure out new approaches, how can we ensure educators on the front lines of change have easy-to-access means for social support and problem-solving?
We’ve done a lot of work to explore what effective teacher learning looks like online. But efforts to connect don’t need to tackle all of professional learning at once. School leaders should quickly consider how to ensure teachers have social and professional connections through standing check-ins over video or other virtual means, such as Slack, for sharing ideas and resources.
To the Big Picture
Finally, we need to think hard about how we can ensure learners’ understanding of connection to the bigger, long-term picture. Persevering during independent learning requires a student to stay focused on goals and understand the relevance of their work.
More than ever, each student needs a plan that clearly articulates what they need to work on and why, and links to resources for learning. They also need a way to know they’ve hit a bar for mastery, as well as for documenting and reflecting on their learning and growth. Individual learning plans can be a critical tool for learners and teachers alike. Early prototypes need not be perfect, but there are many examples to work from.
These dimensions of connection are by no means exhaustive. We’re just beginning to learn and think about how schools can bridge gaps in a pretty unprecedented time. So, in what ways are you thinking about keeping learners connected in their learning? We’d love to hear them.