Keeping Learning Active in Remote Education:
Considerations for teachers in making remote learning active learning
During in-person instruction, it can be easy to walk into a classroom and see the evidence of active learning taking place. Students are scattered throughout the room talking, drafting, researching, and building. When thinking about moving that same type of learning online it may not be easy to envision the processes, but it is certainly just as important to the quality of learning that takes place. Active learning is what transforms ordinary assignments into enriching projects.
During this current national emergency, schools across the country have implemented remote-learning models. First and foremost, we would like to recognize the extraordinary efforts that teachers are making to reach their students wherever they are. Part of these efforts include emphasizing active learning at a distance.
We would like to offer three categories that you can reflect on while designing a distance-learning program. Finding ways to include these features during instruction can help students have an active learning experience.
When it comes to self-directed learning, the most important thing is to give students directions that are clear enough to help them get started and avoid feelings of confusion, but also not so detailed that students feel like they’re just “checking the boxes.”
There are many research-based methods that can be used to help students drive their own learning. You may wish to familiarize yourself with some of the techniques for problem-based learning, challenge-based learning, or project-based learning. Groups like The Buck Institute, Common Sense Media, and Digital Promise have produced resources to help orient teachers to these approaches.
Don’t feel like you must dive all the way into any one of these methods. Instead, start small and draw on them for inspiration. For example, you could plan for the first projects to last a few days with the option of continuing on if most students are enjoying and engaging in the work. All these approaches to learning have produced useful examples that can be used in a remote learning environment.
You may also find it worthwhile to investigate the lesson design approach of “a low floor” and “a high ceiling.” Lessons that use this approach are designed so that students at all levels will be able to provide an initial answer to an essential question. For example, if students are completing a challenge, then the instruction would provide them with a rough pathway for solving the problem, but students could also come up with their own process from the beginning or be asked to create and test additional processes after using the initial process. In supporting self-directed learning, you should consider the level of internet connectivity that each of your students will have and will need to be fully engaged in the activity.
Self-directed learning often works best when students can search the internet looking for resources to help them in solving a complex issue or engage with a variety of tools to test their solutions.
However, that may not be possible for all students. For your students who are not consistently connected you may also consider generating resources that you can send home to students that work like clues to solve the mystery.
One challenging element of remote learning is figuring out how to help students stay connected and support each other in their learning. If students can stay connected to each other, they can continue asking each other the kinds of questions that support deep learning.
Innovators in the field of remote learning have used a variety of methods to help students stay connected, including online forums, pen-pals, and live video or telephone conference calls. Teachers will need to figure out which of these methods will provide the most widespread equitable access for their students, but also a quick enough turn around that student to student support remains relevant by the time it is received. Teachers should also choose systems that allow them to put in safeguards in place that help students maintain their privacy and protect them from online bullying. For example, where possible students could communicate over an approved online platform, rather than texting each others personal numbers.
In supporting peer-to-peer learning, each educator should consider the level of internet connectivity that each of the students will have.
Peer-to-peer learning works best when students have consistent access to their peers to support them after they have struggled with the problem for a bit by themselves or in a group, and before they become too frustrated and give up. For most students this means accessing a peer or group of peers within minutes or maybe hours, but not days.
However, that may not be possible for all students. For your students who are not consistently connected, you may find it better to keep them connected through more long term supports like providing each other positive notes from the school year (in a way that meets guidelines and paper transmission and disease prevention).
Self-Paced Learning and Reflection
Especially during the early stages of crafting a remote learning program, you may rely on self-paced modules where students build their skills, slowly advancing to competency in a particular area. These modules have become very popular and many use strong pedagogical techniques to help students gain knowledge and confidence.
You should promote reflection that has students thinking about what they are learning and why it matters; otherwise, these modules are also liable to feel like busywork to students. Exemplary modules should be relevant to students and connected to their overall learning objectives and tasks they will need to carry out as part of their daily life, both now and in the future.
This kind of reflection is most effective when students are able to use a combination of their preferred modalities to express what they are learning. Some may prefer to draw maps and charts of how their learning fits together. Others may want to have conversations with trusted mentors or peers. It is important to give students flexibility in when and how they reflect while still making sure the reflection process does not get left behind. However, students should also strive to establish a routine, in terms of with whom and how often they reflect.
In promoting self-paced learning and reflection each educator should consider the level of internet connectivity that each of the students will have.
Reflection works best when students (1) have a consistent place to record their learning, (2) you are able to review these records frequently, and (3) you can provide supportive notes and feedback.
However, that may not be possible for all students. For your students who are not consistently connected, you may consider using an alternate form of communication (like email, letters, or phone calls) to check in with them or their parent or guardian (depending on your school’s communications policy).
As a teacher, you may be used to watching the active learning unfold in your classroom, and now is your chance to think about how to help students engage with those around them or work in virtual environments to actively solve problems. Be creative, be flexible, and continue to challenge yourself and your students, so your students can keep learning wherever they are.
Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (2008). Learning through reflection. Learning and leading with habits of mind, 16, 221–235.
McFarlane, R., Spes-Skrbis, M., & Taib, A. (2017). Let’s Chat-A fresh take on the invaluable role of peer-to-peer conversation in student engagement, participation and inclusion. Student success, 8(2), 107–112
Mergendoller, J. R. (2018). Review of the Research: High-Quality Project-Based Learning. Buck Institute for Education.
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