I used to wake up at 5:30 in the morning to teach a preschooler in China how to read, write and speak English. Through a headset and webcam, I learned that he loved space. He showed off solar systems made of foam and sticks and I shared a stuffed rocket from Kennedy Space Center. We exchanged one or two words at a time and lots of gestures, but he made progress and his mom said he looked forward to class.
Claire Cummings teaching English online to students in China for VIPKid. (Credit: Mike Zetlow)
I know from my year teaching at VIPKid that students can learn online, a conclusion researchers have also reached. It’s even possible to build a relationship across tiny screens and a dozen time zones. This online learning model doesn’t work for every child, but it is right for some. And as schools plan to reopen this fall, leaders should use this time to create high-quality distance learning options that could transform teaching and learning for the better.
School looks much the same as it did years ago even though the world is unrecognizable. Many policymakers, families and educators hold onto the nostalgia of the traditional school model, but it was failing us even before the pandemic. The United States ranked 36th in math and 13th in reading among 79 countries and regions that took the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2018.
Hoping to improve our standing, researchers have been calling for a new approach to education for nearly a decade—one that combines in-person and virtual instruction. And many educators have experimented with this kind of teaching. Five years ago, I ditched whole-class lectures in my fifth grade brick-and-mortar classroom in favor of small group rotations. While I taught one group of students how to find the main idea of a text, the others applied reading skills they had learned with me by completing assignments in Google Classroom and adaptive software that allowed them to advance at their own pace. I taught that way for three years before switching to a model in which I served more like a facilitator for students as they worked through material independently.
Left: A third grader works on adaptive software in a station rotation blended learning classroom; Right: A third grader designs her own company logo as part of an assignment from her Google Classroom playlist. (Credit: Claire Cummings)
Teachers in my large Nevada district—Clark County—started transitioning in March to emergency distance learning after schools closed their doors due to COVID-19 (though, owing to a brief leave of absence, I was not among them). We will be returning this fall to a revolutionary way of educating children, if a plan proposed by Clark County officials receives school board approval on July 9. Students will attend school in a blended model with two days of face-to-face instruction and three days online. The hope is that by training teachers in both, we can better transition to complete distance learning if an outbreak occurs. From an educator’s standpoint, there are some thoughtful solutions in Clark County’s proposal that other districts should consider to ensure quality remote learning next year.
Create online teaching positions. Clark County plans to offer two pathways for K-12 teachers and students: the blended track and an online-only track, taught by teachers from each neighborhood school. That’s a smart move considering a recent USA Today/Ipsos poll found that 20 percent of teachers are “unlikely to go back to school if their classrooms reopen in the fall.” Staggering student schedules helps with social distancing, but class sizes in Clark County were as high as 40 in some elementary schools before the coronavirus emerged. Allowing some students to work from home will decrease class sizes even further, which could save lives. Specialists like myself will also be teaching our content online to avoid unnecessary movement throughout the building. Districts that provide similar online offerings come fall would protect the positions of educators who are wary of in-person instruction, which is critical, especially in the midst of a nationwide teacher shortage. Our district, which started the 2019-2020 school year with 750 openings, has hundreds of vacancies each year.
Invest in blended and online learning professional development. Teachers will need guidance on building curriculum online, using technology to foster discussion among students, giving useful and timely feedback and building virtual relationships. Clark County plans to delay the start of school for students by two weeks to provide teachers with 10 full days of professional development. The district says topics will include planning for blended instruction, using online learning management software like Canvas, and understanding health protocols for when students show signs of illness at school. It’s safe to say we will also need direction on schoolwide procedures for social distancing in hallways, structured recess and safely serving meals in classrooms.
Build a schedule that includes ample planning time. There’s a learning curve for everyone when moving instruction online. Teachers will need time to practice using new technology, develop and modify lessons and collaborate with colleagues. Keep in mind, recording one video can take the length of a normal daily prep period. Under Clark County’s proposal, there will be no students in buildings on Wednesdays to allow for deep cleaning and additional teacher prep time.
Consider a flipped classroom approach. Districts like ours that opt for blended instruction—some days on campus and others online—must repurpose the time spent with students face-to-face. Using a flipped model of instruction, teachers can record instructional videos and put them online as homework in lieu of traditional worksheets. During in-person instruction, teachers then answer questions, facilitate discussions, and provide opportunities for problem-solving and applying skills learned online. There are challenges with the model, of course, including the fact that students don’t always complete the instructional material at home before coming to class. But there is some research supporting its impact on learning outcomes when executed well. Given our current plan to see students face-to-face two days a week, the flipped model would help us cover more content during virtual lessons, making the most of our time apart.
When fall arrives, school will not look like it did before, not even on physical campuses. There will be masks, temperature checks and a ban on games like tag. It’s understandable to long for what used to be. But as we plan for what lies ahead, we can make this moment an opportunity to transform our schools in positive ways, and that includes making them more flexible for educators and students. This is our chance to model for students problem-solving and iteration—skills required in a world that can shift without notice.