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From a Distance: The Remote Learning Era

From a Distance: The Remote Learning Era

As we move from the benign anarchy that characterized the first fortnight of the Remote Learning Era, school administration and states are starting to make demands. Sometimes that means settling into unsettling habits. Expectations are being set for seat-time requirements, grades, engagement with particular web sites, packet-returns, etc. Our concern is that these expectations are being set in reaction to the loss of school and not to the needs of the kids.

Deb Large, a music teacher and friend from RSU2 in Maine, wrote the following on Facebook:

RSU teachers are now switching from experiential learning to teaching and assessing with expected student attendance. Here is the reality of the task - we will be attempting to teach our kids with no materials in their hands; unable to sense how they are other than a glimpse of their face on a computer screen shared by many with multiple levels of understanding and ability while they are in an environment we do not know with stressors and fears we can't pick up on.

As we wrote in an earlier post, relationships have always been at the core of learning, and they still are. Schools are a place within which relationships happen. Zoom is a medium within which relationships happen. They will be different. How they will be different, and how they can remain deep and strong, is still to be determined. Time is required to gain facility in the technology so that the relationships can be tended to first.

I’m going to say something that feels obvious but bears repeating. Online learning is a different medium from school, with different weaknesses and different strengths. Fortunately, in competency work that’s been happening over the past few years, many are in a position to play to those strengths - working to greater flexibility and taking advantage of the asynchronous possibilities of that medium. For example, putting up a writing prompt that kids can address at their convenience alleviates the crunch for screen time that a family with one computer, two parents working from home, and three kids with learning obligations will be enduring. It also allows adequate time for reflection, and possibly time to ask the teacher questions, so that when the kid does sit down to write, they are in the best position to do their best writing.

Zoom makes it possible to talk to 50 kids in a grid, but Zoom doesn’t necessarily make it worth doing. Many schools have acted intentionally to make sure these mandatory “gatherings” are worthwhile -- sometimes by limiting their length. At a high school in Westchester, NY, where my nephew attends (it’s also the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in that state), the kids are required to attend two half-hour-long classes for each of their subjects each week. The rest of the time is for projects, self-guided learning, and consultation. The teacher’s role in this is to set parameters, coach the kids, answer questions, and curate materials. The Zoom gatherings also promote class cohesion: we are in this together. This district is affluent and able to provide tech to every kid -- they have that advantage -- but they also know how to use that tech to their advantage for learning, and those practices are not dependent on their affluence. They are dependent on districts stopping and considering, “How can the learning and the relationships best live in this new medium?”

The next post in this series will deal explicitly with how you can know how a kid is doing, how you can know how teachers are doing, how you can report out on those things (grading!), what sort of evidence you can gather from a distance, and how you can do that ethically and with epistemic humility. It will be a good time!

Image by Mudassar Iqbal from Pixabay

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