It is difficult to know what will happen to our lives in the coming months, with the developing coronavirus outbreak.
It may be recommended that schools close for a period, to reduce the possibility of community transmission.
This will produce obvious problems for teachers trying to deliver learning to students quarantined at home .. particularly as we approach exam season.
In this post I want to draw on 10 years of experience delivering distance learning, to give teachers a crash course in how to effectively educate pupils studying at home.
Because there is a lot you can do to create meaningful distance learning experiences for young people .. with minimal additional effort.
So where should you start? .. with what you already know.
1. Know your Students and Subject Matter
In the classroom we design learning experiences to suit both the age and maturity level of our audience.
The same is true of teaching pupils when school is closed - either at a distance, or online.
So when examining the suggestions in this post, look to create your own 'pick and mix’ solution to suit the needs of the specific students you teach ..
.. taking into account their level of access to technology, the nature of what is being taught, and your students' ability to work independently.
You already have detailed knowledge of these things .. creating effective distance learning starts with tapping into what you already know works.
2. Simple Solutions Often Work the Best
While it can be tempting (especially for geeks like me) to dive into technology in the search for solutions, I have found that simple ideas often work the best.
That’s not to say that your learning objectives need to be simple - I mention this more in relation to students having a clear idea of what they need to do in each ‘lesson’.
Because when delivering distance learning, the first big challenge that faces most educators, is that students don’t know where to go, or what to do ..
.. and can't easily clarify this with their teacher.
So whatever you design for your students to do at home, make the instructions for doing so as simple as you can ..
.. and where possible, take advantage of sources and ways of working which students are already familiar with.
The simplest way of teaching pupils when school is closed, is a book and a worksheet .. or a series of questions on a website or school learning platform (VLE), which they are already used to accessing for homework.
While this quickly solves the problem of students not knowing what to do, it creates another - boredom.
Without a teacher to inject pace and personality into lessons, and the lack of interaction with others in their class - students progress can slow significantly.
While this quickly solves the problem of students not knowing what to do, it creates another - boredom. Without a teacher to inject pace and personality into lessons, and the lack of interaction with others in their class - students progress can slow significantly.
Using some of the suggestions in this post, you can easily add an interactive or live element to what you provide for them, which can effectively counter these problems.
Let me explain what I mean ..
3. Distance Learning Doesn’t Need to be Lonely!
I know for many of my students the prospect of having several worksheets and textbooks to work through independently at home, for even a day - would fill them with dread!
I want to offer some suggestions which will liven this up - with minimal input from you.
That is what the rest of this post is about .. ways to make learning come alive for learners working at home.
Because the biggest challenge when delivering learning at a distance is motivating your learner .. this is particularly the case when teaching children.
I have 65 tools and resources to share with you below which will give you a fast start to teaching pupils when school is closed ..
.. but first it's important to understand some core distant learning principles.
4. Search for Opportunities for Interaction
Just because you are delivering learning to students who are working independently at home ..
.. doesn’t mean they need to do this alone.
Technology provides loads of easy ways to create chats, groups or tagged discussions - which a teacher can use to add interaction into a home learning experience.
For example you could ..
- Use a twitter discussion or similar #tag for each class you teach
- Create a group chat in messenger, what’s app or snapchat
- Ask students to post on an online forum
- Utilise the tools provided by your school virtual learning environment
- Create an online noticeboard using Padlet
You could use tools like this for students to post opinions or their responses to a discussion question. They could post questions they have after they have learned something, or comment on the opinions of others.
Often students' use of the tool you choose for them evolves alongside their learning - and gives you a chance to respond flexibly to their needs.
The simple addition of interaction to even a basic home learning experience, does a lot to transform it into something much more engaging.
Teaching pupils when school is closed doesn't need to be a lonely experience!
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5. Consider Flipping Your Classroom
If we look at the possible advantages of quarantining students at home - perhaps the biggest is to develop their ability to work independently.
One of the best ways to achieve this is to 'flip your classroom' ..
.. and using these strategies also provides advantages to teachers required to create distance learning experiences at short notice.
Because it doesn't take long to create an experience which requires students to use existing resources (e.g. a book or website) to learn something independently, and then create a tutorial type ‘distance lesson’ on what they have learned.
When you flip your classroom, lessons switch from being 'absorb' type experiences to tutorial sessions where you can help students clear up misunderstandings - and apply their skills.
As teachers who have flipped their own classrooms will testify, training students to learn this way better prepares them for life in the ‘real world’ too.
Your ability to use flipped strategies will be limited by your students willingness to do the work required of them before a ‘live’ session.
I advise that you use any time you have in the classroom before schools are closed, to help students practise these skills - and start to set the expectation that they learn in advance of your lessons.
When it works, a flipped classroom provides a truly wonderful learning environment.
6. Provide ‘Live’ Instruction
It is now easier than ever to provide live support to your distance learners.
Providing live content doesn't have to mean teaching virtual classes.
It could be simply to provide a time where you are available to ‘chat’ or ‘message’ students to answer questions.
By providing an element of live interaction you allow students still learning independent skills to ask questions .. but you can also use these live elements of your lessons to hold students accountable for their engagement too.
The simplest way to do this might be a group chat on a service like WhatsApp .. where you publish specific times when you will be available live - and when students can post questions to you, or provide updates on their progress.
If your school VLE provides a forum or chat facility, you might already have a solution which has been built for this purpose.
7. Teaching Virtual Lessons
Virtual lessons are live presentations which you stream to students computers (or phones).
Doing this could use adapted versions of the powerpoint presentations you already have.
The software required to deliver virtual lessons is so much simpler than it used to be, and easy for most teachers to learn.
Most webinar type software also includes features like chat boxes so students can ask questions and interact live, as you 'teach'.
If your home internet connection has an upload speed of at least 3mb/s you shouldn’t have reliability problems - and most platforms have mobile apps so students can connect with you on a device they already own.
Best practise when teaching live is to plug your computer into a router directly rather than use WIFI - to cut out the possibility of variations in internet speeds.
It is also wise to consider whether your audience is going to be viewing lessons on smaller screens like mobile phones too. Remember not to swamp your screen with information .. and instead present bitesize chunks which are easier to see.
But what tools can teachers use to deliver a 'live' lesson?
At its simplest, you could use live video on Facebook or a similar platform to deliver live lessons to your students.
At the other end of the scale are purpose built webinar software services like Zoom, which allow you to host a private room for your virtual lessons.
Most webinar software solutions have a free trial period - or free tier of pricing, which mean you can use them for zero cost.
The Zoom service, for example, allows teachers to use their tools completely free for 'meetings' of up to 40 minutes with 100 participants.
If you want to deliver virtual lessons, it is worth considering if instead you could record this ahead of time - and provide students with a way to ask questions afterwards.
Recorded lessons can be accessed by students more flexibly, and can be used over and over again.
Using tools like these, teachers can create narrated powerpoint mini lessons. You might also choose to use whiteboard recording software like ExplainEverything to create classroom-like demonstrations or explanation videos.
The content you create can be published free on sites like Youtube or on your school VLE.
8. Be Predictable
At school you have a timetable so students know what to expect from each day.
When teaching from home, it is a good idea to have times during the day when you make yourself available ‘live’ on whatever platform you decide to use.
By being predictable you encourage your students to organise themselves and develop their independent skills.
You could take this further and require each student to contribute to a discussion or answer a specific question at this time too.
Helping them gain the ability to learn independently is one of the positive opportunities which school closures might offer us.
Talking to students ahead of time about what learning is like as an adult, and how it has helped you in your life, can prepare them to get the most from the experience.
9. Accepting Student Submissions of Work
One of the nice things about delivering learning online, is that the ‘opportunity’ to mark student work is more limited 😉
I believe in making the best of the situations which are forced upon us.
Perhaps one of these is ..
Rethinking the processes your department or school uses for providing proof of progress and meaningful feedback!
The systems which have evolved in many classrooms are onerous and time consuming, while offering limited benefits to the students they are intended to help.
Using the prospect of school closures to rethink how we assess students is potentially exciting, as the obvious solution is that they start to take more responsibility for this themselves.
If you do want to accept student submissions of work, consider these possibilities:
- VLE file upload
- Shared folders on services like Dropbox, Google drive etc
- Recorded video snippets using services like … xxxx screen capture, loom
- Oral submission of ideas, or work on services like xxxxx
- Participation or activity on forums
- Comments on departmental blog posts
10. Consider a More Highly Developed Learning Platform
Schools with the foresight to develop the use of their VLEs or those with departmental blogs, have a distinct advantage in providing imaginative learning experiences to students quarantining themselves at home.
But if you haven't yet taken advantage of using a more advanced platform to deliver learning, it is quick and easy to start a blog using services like Edublogs - which is also completely free.
Uploading 'lesson posts' of resources, explanation and links for students to investigate is straightforward, and provides the opportunity for students to interact with your posts .. adding comments, or engaging in discussion on an ongoing basis.
If you start using these tools before schools close, you can help students get accustomed to using them.
I have found that students enjoy this kind of learning - and that they add significantly to the learning you provide in your classroom too.
Students often complain that the classroom environment doesn’t reflect the connected nature of the world they live in ..
.. what better time is there to try solutions to make it so?
It is worth looking for free resources right now - for example, in the UK, Twinkl recently sent this:
"Twinkl is offering every teacher in England access to all Twinkl resources with a One Month Ultimate Membership, totally free of charge. We’re also extending this to every parent and carer in your school so your pupils can still have access to high-quality learning during any periods of disruption.
Setting this up is really easy to do - go to www.twinkl.co.uk/offer and enter the code UKTWINKLHELPS"
Wherever you are in the world, check the resource companies near you. Many of them have started offering free trials and months of content, which might give you the chance to cut corners in providing work for your students.
11. Start Testing Your Proposed System Early
Whether you are using group chats, an area on your VLE or learning platform, or a flipped approach to learning - you will gain a lot from helping students become familiar with using this ahead of time.
As mentioned already, the challenges with distance learning are often organisational - with learners needing to get used to new ways of working.
It is very useful to start to teach them the skills they need to learn more independently in advance, training them to do this themselves in the future.
It can also give you a chance to work through any kinks in the arrangements you are making, to ensure smooth operation when you are forced to go live.
12. Get Parental Engagement in Advance
Parents will be concerned that their child's education will continue in the event of school closures, and might also appreciate knowing that you are providing meaningful work to engage them with.
A letter sent home outlining the system your school proposes for teaching their child while school is closed, is likely to be well received.
This also allows you to set expectations about what their child will be expected to do during the event of any closure and gain their support in advance.
If you teach younger children, whose independent skills are still developing - the parent is likely to be your substitute teacher. Showing them what is available for them - and being clear about how do it will be invaluable.
What is likely to annoy parents more than anything is uncertainty .. you can remove this by communicating your plans in advance.
13. Make Distance Learning Come Alive
I have worked for 10 years creating learning experiences designed to be delivered online .. and have tried many approaches to motivate learners working remotely.
Below are the 65 best tools and shortcuts that I have discovered to do this.
If you click on the name or image next to each one, you will be taken to the creators website where you can find out more.
Use them to kickstart your creative teaching brain - and give yourself shortcuts to creating engaging home learning experiences.
(To start you thinking .. bear in mind that students could use these tools too)