Digital teaching and remote learning: Tips for teachers on how to get it right

Suddenly thrust into remote teaching and learning? Here are some strategies that will make your teaching more effective and really help your students to learn, even though you’re all in different locations.

Tips for teachers on digital teaching remote learning
Dr Selina Samuels Education expert BA(Hons), LLB, PhD, MEd Wednesday, 18 March 2020

I’ve been working with schools since 2013 to establish and provide remote education programs across a range of subjects. This move to online learning has been driven by the global need for greater access to quality educational resources, and in response to the power of technology to connect students and teachers.

In anticipation of school closures as a result of the spread of COVID-19, the first thing that educators are going to focus on is the technology itself. Do we have a digital learning management system? Is there scope for online submission and marking? Are we going to deploy online communications tools, such as Zoom, to run lessons from a variety of locations?

A number of technologies have been developed for remote learning, but for many schools these are out of reach. Emailing assignments or sending them home on a USB stick may be all that is available. And it’s worth remembering that all the fantastic software in the world won’t necessarily translate to engaged and active students. Most online learning tools are designed for asynchronous, rather than synchronous learning. But most school students are not good asynchronous learners.

For those educators who may really be struggling right now, there are strategies that will make your teaching more effective and really help your students to learn, even though you’re all in different locations. These don’t necessarily rely on the fanciest technology. In many cases, a thoughtful approach to pedagogy will overcome the disadvantage of mediocre tools.

1. Keep your students engaged and accountable

If you’re in the lucky position of being able to conduct some lessons synchronously (i.e. live), you will find that you need a different and more structured approach. There’s less room for digression and a much greater risk that you will lose your students — metaphorically and literally. 

You need to hold your students accountable for their participation and shine a light on each of them individually. Without the opportunity to keep an eye on them from the other side of the classroom, you will need to ask good, open-ended questions to each of them to elicit evidence of learning. This is no time to ask for hands-up. If you have a chat facility as part of the learning platform, this may be the best way to take questions from your students.

2. Death by worksheet

The engagement of your students will be inversely proportional to the emphasis placed on worksheets and textbooks. 

The challenge (and the opportunity) is to design authentically open-ended questions and tasks which will activate learning. The more multi-disciplinary these tasks can be, the better. 

For example, rather than give your students a worksheet on the vital statistics of their town or city, why not design an assignment in which they need to answer the question, “What is my relationship with my town?” A question like that can draw on a range of subjects, including History, Geography, Maths, Science and English. It’s immediately differentiated because each student will come at it from their own context, interests and abilities. 

3. Set the expectations of individual interaction

We know that individualised support is a highly valuable intervention for all students, and it’s even more powerful where there are fewer opportunities for group interaction. 

You can’t afford to wait for your students to reach out to you for individual support, but will need to structure the school week so that every one of them is expected and enabled to communicate directly with you. 

If your school doesn’t already have a system for 1:1 tutorials, now is your chance. It may be possible to do this via a tool like Zoom (which is now available as a full feature basic plan for free), or perhaps you will need to organise a way for your students to call you or for you to call them. 

Set up a roster — even 15 minute slots may be sufficient. Once you have a roster and structure, you will need to have something specific to discuss. It won’t be enough to simply ask, “how are you going?” This is where clearly delineated checkpoints in larger assignments will give you opportunities to check in with each of your students and provide the all-important feedback and encouragement.

While these 1:1s are likely to be most immediately beneficial for secondary or senior secondary students, 1:1 interactions (the classic tutoring model) are powerful for all students and can be easily facilitated remotely. For younger students, it’s a great opportunity to check in with their parents to see how they’re managing the challenges of suddenly running a homeschool. Even once a fortnight (if schools are closed for a lengthy period of time) will give you useful insight into how everyone is travelling and the individual support your students may need.

4. Enable collaboration

The novelty and excitement of staying home from school will wear off fairly quickly. Not only will most students miss the structure of school (although they may not admit it), they will definitely miss their friends. To maintain this interaction, it’s useful to look for ways that they can learn together. 

One of the benefits of designing assignments with broader topic areas and diverse approaches is facilitating peer collaboration. As in all group work, the teacher should always choose the pairs or teams and outline clearly what the outcome of the collaboration should look like. 

Also, marks should be allocated for process and cooperation. Your scheduled 1:1 tutorials will provide you with insight as to how each of your students is approaching the collaborative task and working with their peers.

5. “Just in time” support

As mentioned, most online teaching and learning tools are designed for asynchronous learning. We tend to find that students become better able to manage learning in this way as they grow older. 

But while logic would suggest that Year 12 would be the best able to learn in this way, they’re actually the most likely to need a great deal of interaction with their teachers and lots of reassurance. After all, they’re facing high stakes assessments and are probably more concerned than anyone else about the implications of school closures. 

Tailored, “just in time” teaching is going to be particularly valuable for them. 

Seniors can also benefit hugely from working alongside their peers. A hybrid model that combines lessons and 1:1 tutorials will work best to ensure that they’re staying on track with the quantity of schoolwork, but also receiving specific assistance in the areas where they have particular needs.

Cluey is offering a series of FREE webinars to support teachers who are adapting to a digital teaching environment. Join me for the first one on Monday, March 23 at 7:30pm AEDT to discuss these and other issues further. Register now.

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