How Online Learning Research Can Improve Remote Instruction

May 13, 2020

Looking for an easy way to become a better online instructor? At a time when millions of educators have been thrown into remote learning with no formal training, any answer to that question might seem too good to be true.

But for now, some experts say to start simple: Take a short online course, for example, to see what students experience. (The in-depth workshop or multi-day training can come later.)

“It’s one of the easiest things to do to really understand what that environment looks like, feels like and behaves like,” says Kerry Rice, a professor at Boise State University who has studied effective online learning.

If nothing else, the experience of learning online can alter a teacher’s perspective, which is a crucial first step toward improving practice. “Teaching online requires a real shift in thinking about your role as a teacher, from having students who are a captive audience to trying to teach students who are scattered in time and place, and distractions,” Rice says.

Rice recently joined two other online learning researchers on an EdSurge-ISTE webinar, focused on how existing research on online learning can help teachers navigate the emergency remote instruction that’s been in place since schools closed in March.

There’s nothing wrong with formal professional development, especially if it’s meted out in manageable, bite-sized chunks, adds Torrey Trust, an associate professor of learning technology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has studied professional learning networks and social media.

“But too often, when teachers go into webinars or workshops [offered by] their school or district, it rarely connects with the direct needs they have in the classroom that moment,” she says. That’s where Facebook groups and other social media spaces have been filling the void, letting teachers learn what they need right when they need it.

“What we really need is to create spaces for teachers to socialize how they would in their hallways, to have conversations that they’re missing in schools, and to decompress and reflect upon this experience and how it’s affecting their own personal health and wellbeing,” Trust says.

Another untapped source of quality information about online teaching often comes from those that have been doing it for over a decade—namely state virtual schools. “They actually have materials to support teachers engaging in online experiences, everything from what it looks like to teach physical education online to working with students with special needs,” says Richard Ferdig, a professor of educational technology at Kent State University.

Decades of research into online teaching practice has shown that simply replicating face-to-face instructional strategies is not particularly effective. In particular, educators might reconsider asking students to spend long stretches of time on video conferencing platforms like Zoom, which rarely helps with (anyone’s) engagement.

That’s a conclusion many teachers are coming to naturally, says Rice, who recently wrote about her research into online engagement strategies for EdSurge. Teachers might break down lectures in bite-sized video clips, and use live streaming, or synchronous, time to conduct wellness checks with students and connect with them individually or in smaller groups.

“What we find in our data mining research is that the most successful outcomes are from students who are the most consistently involved or engaging with the content,” says Rice. “Not necessarily how long they engage with them, but how consistent they are.”

The biggest challenge for educators of young students is structuring school days that still feel like a school experience to them. “There's not a lot of research on very young children and online learning,” Rice says. “So, to my mind, the younger you get, the closer to a traditional type of classroom you need.” Older students, she adds, can handle more autonomy in their learning, yet those age groups present challenges of their own. Middle school teachers often must focus on combating student distraction and loss of focus. And in high school, the chief concern is keeping up attendance.

And, somewhat paradoxically, engagement with online learning is not synonymous with screen time, says Ferdig. “I think people have this perception that if it’s online learning, it means you’re sitting in front of the screen,” he says.

According to Ferdig, screen time guidelines set by groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics are still best practice, even when students learn remotely. To limit screen time, teachers can lean on Universal Design for Learning principles, which advocate for giving students different options in how they learn concepts and complete assignments, including offline activities.

“Quality, creative teaching is really required,” adds Trust. “If I were to ask teachers to learn one thing over summer, it would be to work on their creative thinking skills,” especially when it comes to lesson design. As an example, Trust pointed to an interdisciplinary choice board, which gives students multiple options for learning about a subject.

“What I would like to see is a 10- to 15-minute mini lecture, then an activity for 30 to 45 minutes” followed by group discussion, she says. “You can teach all of your topics without technology or with limited technology.”

This is a very brief recap of the conversation. To hear the rest, listen to the episode in the player on this page.


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