In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers have needed to abruptly transition their lessons from physical classrooms to distance learning platforms. Here, Nicol Howard, a professor of learning and teaching at the University of Redlands School of Education, offers tips for teaching in this changed environment.
First, determine access. “Whether you’re teaching in K-12 or higher education, access needs to be considered, including availability of a device, internet connectivity, and bandwidth from students’ homes,” Howard says “These are things that you don't always ask when you're in class because the students are using school resources. But when they're at home—and some might live in rural areas—the first thing to think about is digital equity. We have to be creative about how we can get a hotspot to a student, and how to support students who don't have connectivity from their residences.”
Howard notes that one approach to solving these problems is to bring the community into the conversation. Educators might be able to partner with local organizations and companies, for example, to make technology more accessible. Also, especially at the kindergarten through fifth-grade level, this community also includes parents and families. Bringing these stakeholders into the conversation can be key.
Next, choose the right learning tools and practice using them. “Once you decide which tool is going to help aid in achieving learning goals, focus then on that tool,” says Howard. “Set aside time to explore the tool’s capabilities. If something is difficult or frustrating for us to use, our students will likely experience that as well.” According to Howard, some of the most widely-used distance learning teaching tools include video conferencing platforms such as WebEx, Google Meets, and Zoom, content management systems such as Google Classroom, learning management systems such as Moodle, Canvas, and Blackboard, and applications that support collaboration, such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, and Padlet.
To help manage some of the new demands in a home learning environment, Howard likes to recommend tools that monitor progress, such as Prodigy, a free, fun, math-based learning program. Prodigy allows parents to set up accounts and receive alerts about progress, relieving some pressure on parents to lesson plan for their child daily.
Consider the social-emotional learning aspect of your curriculum. “We need to think about the toll that these circumstances are taking on our students,” says Howard. “For my graduate students whose job schedules are in flux, I have to have clear yet flexible expectations. It’s important to think about the different ways that students can meet the goals of your online courses.”
Parents can also be an important part of the distance learning setting, and they may need additional support from teachers in their expanded role. For example, parents, caregivers, and students might need to be encouraged to think about making a space that is comfortable for students to work in, if possible. “Students benefit from having separate areas to learn, eat, sleep, and play,” notes Howard. “When space is limited, families should create blocks of time where a certain space in the home is designated for formal learning experiences.”
Finally, teachers need to remember to take care of themselves. Taking some time to step away from technology is healthy. “It's very easy to sit down and start working on your online course and get lost in the work as the hours go by,” says Howard. “Meditate, do a yoga class, and encourage your students to do the same with or without digital tools.”