Over the last months, amid school closures, educators have had to quickly adapt their instruction to allow for remote learning. This includes not only those in traditional schools but also after-school enrichment providers that often run STEAM and project-based learning programs for elementary students. As a group of four educators, we’ve recently navigated this phase. During the past few weeks, we’ve brainstormed challenges and strategies, sat through each others’ classes, and collaborated on joint offerings.
After our initial hesitation about online teaching and some early hiccups, we feel much more optimistic about e-learning. Much to our surprise, we found that our students were more engaged and focused during these remote sessions than they sometimes are during the in-person classes. While some of this may be due to the novelty of remote learning, we believe that this technology can play a strong, supportive role in education.
One thing we wanted to preserve during our transition was healthy interaction and discussion among students. This made things a little more tricky, but by using a combination of technology and strategy, we feel that we were able to accomplish our goal. Here are a few things we learned in the remote learning transition:
Teach students remote learning etiquette
One of the first issues we encountered was the realization that it’s not just teachers who needed to learn how to adopt new classroom technology, but it is also students. Most of the students in our elementary age cohort were new to video conferencing tools like Google Hangouts and Zoom.
When you have more than 10 young students all trying to talk or comment at the same time, it can get noisy pretty quickly. To teach them good digital habits, we decided to create some fun warm-up games that not only build creativity, but also teach them how to mute and unmute themselves or how to turn off the video, and why these features are useful in a classroom. Our hope was that, at least for upper elementary students, instead of the teacher muting the class, students learn to be responsible themselves.
For example, one of the games we used was “Storytelling One Sentence At A Time,” an improv game that strengthens spontaneity, which we adapted to the remote learning setup. The whole class builds the story together but each student can only say one sentence at a time. All students start out muted, and as the teacher calls out a random student’s name, he or she unmutes, says the next sentence in the story and then mutes again. We found that after playing the game, students became quite adept at muting themselves unless they had to say something during the rest of the session.
Remember that technology is your friend
Technology platforms like Zoom or Google Hangouts have a few features that make remote sessions easier to conduct. Some of our favorites:
Breakout Rooms: Zoom allows you to create groups and assign them to breakout rooms. Students in a breakout room only interact with each other, and the teacher can go into each room to observe and engage with students. This is the digital equivalent of assigning group work and then walking around to check on each group, with one additional advantage: In the remote session, students in a group are not distracted with the noise from other student groups making it easier for each group to focus.
Live Collaborative Editing: While our students had experience with shared editing using Google or Office 365, we found that collaborative editing while being on a video call was highly engaging for students. In one session where students were editing a shared Google doc while talking on the Hangouts call, students were able to finish their task faster than we typically see. One reason we think this works well is that it puts everyone close and on an equal footing. For example, for a typical group work in a physical class, one student takes the job of writing down on paper. The others offer ideas, but without the ability to control the writing, it often leaves them a little less engaged. Or, students sit at their computers to edit the same document but the physical distance between the students makes it harder to discuss things. In a remote setting, both of these problems go away, making the session much more productive.
Miscellaneous: A few other features have also been useful in our experience. Being able to record the session and make it available to students who missed the class makes it easier for them to catch up for the next session. Digital whiteboard and the “raise hand” features in Zoom were also useful to incorporate.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with different strategies
Moving over to remote learning does require some amount of restructuring to lesson plans. One thing we realized early on is that assigning worksheets doesn’t work at all in this learning environment, even if they had worked in a physical classroom setting before. So we swapped them out for more whiteboard discussions or time watching and analyzing short videos together.
At DaVinci Academy, where the students are younger elementary learners, teachers also started incorporating physical movement breaks into their sessions. In a physical classroom, students get a chance to get up and move around but for a remote session physical breaks have to be intentionally planned so students stay healthy.
Another strategy, discovered by Positive Ally, was to add an assistant teacher to handle classroom management. The assistant teacher keeps track of which students have raised their hand and haven’t been called recently and unmutes them. The assistant also keeps track of chat messages and provides answers to student queries that might arise on the fly. This frees up the lead teacher to focus on delivering the actual lesson. This strategy allowed Positive Ally to scale to class sizes of up to 50 students!
While there is a learning curve in shifting to remote learning, we found that there are also clear advantages. Overall, we found that students were more engaged and less distracted. In addition, technology tools also lend itself to scaling and better collaboration, which can be a plus in many scenarios. Going forward, we will likely use some of these lessons even when things get back to normal.
By Jelena Pavicevic, Sunitha Gorthy, Chris Poulsen, and Aman Narula