Remote learning. Distance education. Home schooling. These ideas came as a real shock to most families (and teachers!) in the spring of 2020. Districts and schools were woefully unprepared to support students who needed to work from home in terms of planning for supplies as well as how to deliver instruction remotely. Students without internet connections often found themselves with materials but little explanation. Teachers without internet connections sometime taught from their cars, parked near wifi hotspots. Other teachers were allowed to be in their classrooms which felt too empty without students. Many teachers were confined to their homes and had to clear a corner for teaching around their own family’s needs (and often their own children’s lessons).

A quick note: “homeschooling” is very different from remote instruction! Homeschooling is family-directed with content and pacing generally decided on by the adults. It may or may not use online services, and it does require that the adults in charge have the knowledge, time, and disposition to spend extended time with their own children as teacher and guide.

Remote instruction, on the other hand, is teacher-directed and standards-driven. While adding student “choice and voice” are the buzzwords of the moment, the truth is the students need to learn specific material in a specific time frame. Teachers adapt and differentiate instruction for multiple student needs, but the core material is the same for everyone. Families are in the position of making sure the student accesses the material and does the required work, but they are not placed in a teaching role.

Gradually, using our colleagues as coaches and surfing the internet for ideas we cobbled together ways to provide video instruction for those students who could connect. Some teachers provided the videos via thumb drive for kiddos who had computers but no internet. We stumbled through pared-down units to keep learning going knowing that for some families even sitting down to read once a day was a struggle.

Families, already overwhelmed by the need to share computers between children (and adults who were suddenly working from home), were also unfamiliar with terms and concepts. Some families were reluctant to “disturb” the teachers, not knowing that we almost literally lived for those emails and phone calls! They weren’t sure which tasks were considered essential, they didn’t know which materials to use… the list was varied and endless.

How should teachers take lessons and materials from a classroom-based learning mindset into a full-time online or even blended (sometimes called hybrid) learning model? There ARE ways!

I have attended three institutes this year from the Teacher’s College at Columbia that explored how to transfer traditional instruction to remote models. I also have taken part in both ReImagine Wa Ed courses from Shifting Schools (still in the middle of the second one), and have recently finished 6 weeks intensive instruction and work on how to “flip” classrooms from The Flipped Classroom Formula/Teach on a Mission to include some video instruction as well as synchronous work.

Remote Learning: A Quick Overview

The main components to remote instruction are a launchpad of some sort (centralized communications hub, usually a website or Class Dojo), a learning management system where work can be posted and turned in and students can ask questions directly on the lessons (google classrooms), and synchronous (real-time, face-to-face or zoom-style) and asynchronous (often called self-paced) learning. Ideally there isn’t a lot of duplication between the parts, but families will need to learn where to go for specific needs. A page on the launchpad with links to the most-used online services is helpful. [don’t post passwords on these sites]

Planning and Delivery for asynchronous instruction is different from, but not more complex than, synchronous and in-person instruction.

The MOST IMPORTANT idea for creating asynchronous teaching videos is to have ONE skill, concept, or task in mind for each lesson. Discrete, targeted instruction works best for those situations when you cannot do quick formative assessments while watching students work.

Once you have your “one thing” in mind, consider the type of instruction you are aiming for: introducing a big concept, or exploring one they already know something about? Teaching a specific skill (handwriting comes to mind, or organizing a binder)? Providing practice for a skill? The way you teach in the classroom may be through a written or verbal explanation, a demonstration, or student examples, combined with in-class practice and reflection – the same is true for video lessons.

It can be useful to think of a traditional class period in segments of work. There should be one “video segment” for introducing the concept or skill, and a separate “segment” for practicing it. One way to do this is to create separate, short videos that students can work through in sequence. A drawback to that approach can be that students skip the instructional piece and move directly to the practice work. But an advantage is that you can create short videos as you have the time, rather than trying to present for twenty or thirty minutes.

The approach that I used in the spring and have been refining this summer “bundles” the work into a longer video that has built-in practice (“now pause the video and do the work, then come back to check how you did”) and breaks (“before we move on to the next part, take a few minutes to stretch, get a drink of water, and relax – then come back to keep working!”). This is more useful to younger students who need considerably more guidance and support, and might also better support older students who like to work faster rather than better. 

Power move: I actually record shorter videos, then use an editing program to crop and combine them. This is a bit more time-consuming and requires some time to learn the software, but reduces the need to re-tape so often.

Another approach that can work is to make the initial video that everyone sees, and then a couple of alternatives for the practice segment – one for the kids who need a little more time and practice on the basics and one for the kids who are usually ready for a bit of a challenge once they have grasped the rest. 

The SECOND MOST IMPORTANT idea for asynchronous teaching is to decide when and how students will show what they have learned, and how often. Our students still need to interact physically with physical books, paper and pencil, but we don’t want to be bombarded with reams to look through once they can return to school, it is a good idea to know what, when, and how kids will show evidence of learning.

Some teachers of older students ask their kiddos to take notes while watching (scaffolded notes similar to cloze passages, or Cornell notes, etc) and then submit them through cellphone pics or a scan. Some teachers have students do practice work on paper and then have prepared interactive materials that each child can work with online and then submit within the Google Apps system. There are a lot of choices! 

For most videos and segments it may not be necessary to see every task the student did (introductions to concepts or practice sessions in the middle of math lessons, for example). For some segments, more detailed submissions may be desired. Without that, just as in the classroom, teachers cannot know if a quick reteach is necessary for the whole class or for just one or two. In addition, waiting too long to see student work can eliminate the power of “feedback.” I recommend having at least an exit ticket of some kind for each core content area daily just to be sure kids are progressing.

Ways to get RESPONSES without students uploading files

There are many online services that allow online responses from students, many of which are free or very low cost and that meet internet safety standards for younger students. Most of these are already being used somewhere in Elma schools! Flipgrid is brilliant for students because they can record a short video or audio clip as a sort of exit ticket. It also avoids the problems of blurry images from cellphone cameras or finding where a student sent screenshots of their work. Google Forms (link goes to a short youtube video) can be used for formative or summative assessments and can even self-score simple responses much like quizzes in a classroom. Padlet allows students to respond in writing either at the same time or in their own time to prompts based on texts, images, or videos uploaded by the teacher. Nearpod can embed quick checks in the middle of a lesson that can be self-paced or teacher-paced during synchronous (classroom or Google Meet) instruction. Kahoot is an online game that students can access from a cellphone or tablet as well as a chromebook – the teacher can set up teams of students or individual mode and create multiple choice questions for a quick check. This can be done in real time (teacher-paced) or asynchronously (student-paced).

The THIRD most important piece is feedback. Feedback is being discussed in the remote learning community in the form of a coaching session – identifying as close to “in the moment” as possible both strengths and areas of improvement. A simple “good job” is not feedback in this sense, but “I like how you remembered to include rich detail – how could you make it more clear who is speaking each time?” would be feedback. As far as possible, the feedback should be related to the teaching point or a learning move the student has been working on (perhaps increasing stamina for writing). Keeping it simple will allow the student and family to know what to focus on in the next lesson. Feedback is not the same as grading, but the notes you take during that process can be used to inform grades.

How do you give feedback? Using Google Apps (Docs, Classroom) allows you to make comments directly on student work without it being seen by other students or families. A quick note by email or in Dojo. A phone call home. In-the-moment comments for synchronous sessions. Many of the online ways to collect student responses can provide automatic feedback as well.

A related idea is that continuous formative assessment and feedback can be as valuable as end-of unit or “product based” summative assessment. By observing students while they are in the middle of learning and asking them reflective questions about their process or for demonstration of how they accomplish their work a teacher in a remote setting can both empower students to take charge of their work and assure that what is being graded is the students’ own work. For some lessons, while a student could prepare an end-product (story, explanation for math work, science report) the learning on the way to the product instead of the product itself becomes the focus.

Some Practical Advice (what I wish I had known in April):

Making videos:

Although being in front of a camera can be uncomfortable, for our students seeing our faces and hearing our voices will help them feel connected — both during remote learning and when they can return to the classroom. Just like in real life some days we’ll look and feel better than others. Don’t worry if you don’t look like a fashion plate (but hurrah if you do)!

Remember to keep the lighting in front of you – backlit figures are difficult to see. Facing a window, or putting a lamp on the other side of your recording camera (mine hangs over my computer monitor), is useful. Light that is nearly straight on (not from above or below) helps eliminate deep shadows on your face. 

Being clearly heard: I use a boom mike, others prefer a headset with a mouthpiece or a clip-on mike. Generally speaking, the quality of built-in microphones is poor for affordable computers and laptops. My boom mike is directional so some background noise can be screened out. Whatever type of microphone you use, do listen to yourself in the first few videos you make to be sure your voice is coming through clearly the whole way through.

Keep your background simple if you are videotaping yourself. It is tempting to use a virtual background, but as a person who is highly distractible myself, I find the “flicker” that can result if you are not in front of a greenscreen a bit overwhelming. If you are in your classroom, the whiteboard or other teaching space is perfect as a background. At home, a wall that is not highly decorated is better than a bookcase full of books and mementos.

I try to start each video with a reminder of what students need to have ready to go – even if they can read what’s on the screen, some of the kiddos need a nudge! I list on the screen, say each item, and show each item so there’s no confusion about what I mean.

PACING is important. To support my students with hearing, language processing, and ELL needs I try to remember to speak a little more slowly and have my face pointed at the camera. Closed captioning can be added to screencastify videos [linked here].  And youtube videos can be sped up or slowed down for students who prefer a different pace.

Using Slides and other prepared materials in videos:

Keep them simple to start. Although there are dozens of beautifully illustrated slide sets available, illustrations that are not part of the actual lesson can be a distraction. I like to have a similar format for all the slides I use for each content area, and similar cues for students so they know what’s going on.

  • Target symbol to show what they are working on
  • An emoji/consistent image to key them to the type of content or work (crayon for drawing, pencil for writing, small cubes for math manipulatives)
  • The FEWEST POSSIBLE WORDS on any slide – some students may end up viewing videos on cellphones. Consider what may not be clear if the viewing area is small! More slides with fewer words is better – remember that you will be adding information and detail in your narrative as you go through them. If you want a script for your slides, use the “speaker notes” section!
  • Have the same starting and ending slide each time so students learn to be ready for that content when they see that slide. First slide in every math lesson might have just an image of their workbook, for example, and the last slide should have the link or instructions for turning in their responses.
  • In a recent course the idea of “wayfinding” was introduced (very important for self-paced lessons!) – give students easily recognized and obvious signs so they know what to do and when. 
    • If they have a choice of tasks, or a choice of which order to do the tasks it increases engagement, but for starting out I recommend keeping most videos and slide sets simple.

If you are using a more interactive service such as nearpod, consider that you are really doing a full production, more along the lines of an interactive game or TV show. But the same principles apply. It can be helpful to use some of their pre-made lessons to start with, and then move on to editing in what you want before you make lessons from scratch.

Supporting Student Work:

With most computers it is possible to attach a document camera (like an Elmo) as a second video source and record yourself working/demonstrating on paper as you speak.

Students seem to benefit from seeing the exact same materials they are being asked to use. I will demonstrate in a composition book or on lined paper even for video lessons. And for math I preferred to use PDFs of the actual pages instead of the slides to help my students see exactly where on their workbook pages to look.

It was frustrating for me to have to provide the lesson and not be able to adjust in the middle for that one kid who was clearly lost! However, it is possible to use your “meet time” to help those students, and if your grade level is providing “office hours” students and families can ask for extra help as well. Students and families can also be encouraged to call, email or Dojo message with questions which helps alleviate their anxiety and prevents misconceptions from sitting too long.

And the above notes on feedback and assessment play in here as well. Even more so than during in-person instruction students benefit from more-frequent, shorter feedback moments. That feedback can come from you, a family member, a peer during Google Meets, or even from themselves as they compare their work to examples you provide.

FINAL NOTES:

For most purposes, it is useful to think about the Student-paced instruction as the “teaching part” and the teacher-directed instruction (real-time via Zoom, in-person, or otherwise) as the time to practice and extend the learning. If a student can watch the teaching video and do any off-screen work on their own (or with help from an adult), then the in-person time can be spent giving feedback, answering questions, and making the personal connections that are so important for student engagement.

Many teachers “flip” their classrooms already – providing videos the students can watch on their own time, or at the beginning of class, and then use the rest of the in-person time to check for understanding and the group work and 1:1 support. By doing this, students who are absent can more-easily catch up because they receive the same basic instruction – without requiring them to meet separately with the teacher. It also allows students who need more time that luxury: they can pause the video to think or work, slow it down, stand up in the middle to clear their heads and come back when they are ready, without drawing attention to themselves.

Once the basic lessons are prepared, teachers often add “value” to the experience by creating different ways to access the information. Where they provided an article originally, they might add the choice of a video. Where they asked for a written book report they might allow students to create a short piece of animation or video. A hand-drawn diagram in science could be an alternative to using an online chart-creator. For in-class work students could use more-traditional materials as well as online resources.

Online instruction can provide links to dictionaries, thesauruses, content-specific resources, and “child appropriate” platforms where students can share their ideas with their peers. All of these may be present in a physical classroom, but when a student can use them away from the eyes of their peers it is more appealing, particularly for older students who are socially anxious.