Remote/Digital Learning · UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Take-aways from the first week of distance learning

At the end of the day, I am just a classroom teacher, trying to figure out how to work with my kids, day after day.  I have never been much for the esoteric side of things, the theories–I’m far more inclined to want practical and immediate applications.  When I write blog posts, I work from the idea that I am just sharing my experiences, hoping this will help someone else in their classroom or their practice.

Although I will be publishing this post towards the end of May, I’m writing it on the first weekend of our emergency transition to digital learning in early April.  And I don’t think this will be the last time we find ourselves making this emergency transition to online education.  I am sure, when this post actually gets published, things will be better and different.  The kids will have settled into the new routines….I’ll know to triple-check my Zoom codes….the kids will change their names before they enter the waiting room to avoid Zoom-bombing.  But I think this whole situation should be a big warning to teachers and administrators everywhere, a chance to prepare now for the possibility (probability?) of this happening again.

road-sign-63983_1920How can we be prepared to do this better next time?  What if the second wave of COVID-19 hits in six months, right as the school year begins again?  How could we use this time to be prepared to turn on a dime?  What preparation would teachers be able to do this summer?  What financial support can districts offer to make that happen?  What would I need as a teacher to be able to switch gears MUCH earlier in the year?  What would it look like if we started school, went digital for a few weeks in a new pandemic, then returned to school?  What can we do now to prepare for that possibility?

Even in this first week of digital teaching, my colleague and I made changes on a near-daily basis.  I have documented some of these changes in my blog post on teaching new content, but there are other changes that can’t be captured in pictures.  The first thing Irene and I noticed was that the Zoom structure of our first day of online classes created a one-way, teacher-directed, teacher-speaking-only classroom.  Horrifying.

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By Wednesday, when we were scheduled to have classes again with our students, we had already decided to try the break-out groups feature in Zoom.  Irene and I made a list of sample problems to use with students, discussing when to put kids in the break-outs and when to pull them back together, when to scramble groups (or not, since that was another thing I couldn’t get right in Zoom!) and when to keep them the same.

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We added an announcement box to have a place to add videos and links to useful material that came up as we had Office Hours and classes.

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We ran into multiple issues with technology that didn’t work–Edulastic that doesn’t update from Google Classroom, leaving students in the wrong classes with the wrong assignments; Educreations that doesn’t work on Zoom; requirements for uploading assignments that assume students have access to a certain program and don’t provide an alternative.  Just like teachers have had to “up their game” in this brave new world of digital teaching, so, too, will ed tech providers have to make sure that their products are top-notch if they are going to support teachers in becoming the providers of instruction, rather than just supporting instruction.

I have written and spoken about an a-ha moment I had in my practice years ago when a parent asked me “when are you going to start teaching” because she felt I was using too much technology and not enough face-to-face instruction with my kids.  I have acknowledged the validity of her point, but I now laugh at the irony–we teach today in a world where face-to-face instruction is not an option, where students need to learn how to manage digital instruction (even when their teacher is providing digital instruction in real-time), where technology drives the instruction.  How can administration support this shift in mind-set?

I think we need to imagine things like “COVID-19 drills,” days when kids work only online in a brick-and-mortar classroom.  Why?  So teachers can trouble-shoot issues with online learning and online tools/programs with the students BEFORE the entire program goes digital.  Administrators should hold practice meetings via Zoom, even with all staff physically sitting in their classrooms in the brick-and-mortar school building; administration should embrace the opportunity to practice while it’s a drill, not a reality.  Rather than telling teachers they shouldn’t be on the computer while students are in the room, administration should acknowledge teachers’ attempts to support students in preparing for a transition to online/digital learning before it’s a crisis, before it’s a pandemic, before we are juggling the stress of a world on fire on every front.  With planning and foresight, we can get ahead of a future crisis.

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