Mapping the K-12 Distance Learning Journey
This Spring, the K12 landscape was upended. As we chronicled the response from one school, valuable lessons emerged to transform the classroom of the 21st century.
March 16, 2020
We received the official notice this afternoon that our “home school” would be in session beginning immediately as the nation prepares for its largest experiment in distance learning. Pre‐kindergarteners through graduate students are about to experience tech‐enabled teaching and learning like never before. Faculty members are being asked to prepare lesson plans and novel methods for engaging students across the digital spectrum. However, if they are simply focusing on using new tools to deliver lectures in front of the camera, they are missing a generational opportunity. As someone who has spent the last twenty years designing media solutions for adult learners in global companies, there are some basic rules to distance learning our classroom teachers should apply that could transform their classrooms for years to come.
Consider clusters rather than individuals from the beginning. It’s easy to begin planning by thinking about the most engaging or entertaining way to present content to an individual. However, consider clustering students early on in the process to promote group work and connections. Across the age spectrum, whatever you are producing for your students is being complemented by their activities on social media. So, think about allowing them to work together from the beginning to imagine how they might use resource materials to “teach the content” to each other. What does it look like if the clusters become the instructors and you become the shepherd through the content.
Think projects not PowerPoint. Instead of creating new slides and multimedia to make lectures more engaging using this medium, think about a series of compelling projects that students can complete in clusters and online. Don’t worry, parents. These are not the science projects that require more use of your time and foam core. Rather, these are plans and projects that students are assigned at the beginning of the week to complete in a group and present to fellow classmates. Imagine if your study of the Constitution turned into an exercise where students curated their own Federalist Papers. Students could submit their editorials to each other for editing and student clusters could sequence them to make the most compelling arguments for or against ratification.
Make TikTok work to your advantage. There is no greater media tool right now that has the attention of America’s students. Find ways to use the media that students are using daily rather than solely looking at streaming or bulletin board platforms. Give you students a chapter for the week and tell them that they should create a TikTok crystalizing the message. Make the act of learning a contest and creative exercise to allow them to find new joy in the learning process.
Create discussion forums like never before. In an age where most people’s ability to interact via the written medium has been wiped out through texts, Snapchat, and other means, allow students to learn to argue, debate, create and propose new ideas using the written medium. It’s the one skill that I see so lacking in new employees and in students. This change in the rhythm of how we speak to classmates should put a new premium on the written word. Therefore, think about giving students time to think about ideas and then learn to communicate them with impact. Ensure your platforms have discussion board capability and don’t put a Twitter like restriction on characters.
Use your influence to care for your students. I’m just starting to see our children’s resilience crack with questions about the impact of COVID‐19. So, ensure that you are thinking about virtual touch points with them where you can see their faces on a camera and allow them to ask questions and share emotions. After all, they’ve spent the school year building deep, trusting relationships with you. Don’t let them die.
Teachers and faculty, you are the sages of our children’s educational journeys. I have complete confidence in your ability to partner with parents during these unprecedented times. Thank you in advance for what you will do, and good luck, as you use this time to think about how your classroom can be changed forever.
April 23, 2020
One month ago, my children finished Spring Break. Instead of returning to the physical classrooms, athletics fields, and hallway meet‐ups that defined their school year, they navigated their ways to the black box of remote K‐12 learning.
Now, their hopes for a quick “time out” have turned into the harsh reality that this new model of distance education will be the vehicle that takes them to the end of this academic year and potentially into part of the next. When our school and others around the country committed to this journey, my hope was that we wouldn’t waste this opportunity to move past the perfect and use it as a chance to experiment with and scale big ideas that could truly transform how our students learn going forward. We’ve been using the medium in adult learning for a long time. This is a chance to begin the cascade of best practices.
While my children and I can agree that distance learning has been anything but perfect, there have been a few lessons and examples that have been standing out to me this month that are worth celebrating and replicating in a bigger way:
Distance learning can create much more robust, helpful communications between teachers, children, and parents. For example, my oldest daughter’s advisor not only uses digital communications to check in on my child. Rather, she has created innovative ways to connect her assigned subset of the parent community to the school and to our children outside of the traditional parent teacher conferences and PTA meetings. I’ve enjoyed being able to hear how some of my fellow parents are navigating the emotional roller coaster of the pandemic, and I love hearing my daughter stop me from interrupting her if “she is in the middle of her advisory” giving advice to a student who is having trouble working through the digital curriculum. I think distance learning has forced us to question why we’ve constructed barriers in the communications between parents, children and the school. Privacy matters, but we must be much more open to creating new patterns for open, vulnerable connection.
Distance learning can break down inequity of experience. Many of the schools in our community are not providing distance education because of the inequities of devices, internet access, and platforms. It really bothers me that we did not anticipate this before the pandemic, fund the priority, and act. Now, we’re allowing children to flail. Let’s not use this misstep, however, to avoid seeing how distance education can actually enhance equity and access if done well. I’ve watched my youngest child go on a five‐day virtual field trip through Monticello, Jamestown, and the early colonies. She didn’t have to go on a bus or stay in a hotel. Rather, the faculty member has done a masterful job creating scavenger hunts, showing role plays, and giving the child most elements of a live experience except for eating at a food court on the eight‐hour ride home. We can give every child the opportunity to see new places and experience learning differently using this medium.
Distance learning can give students a crash course in communications and presentation skills. We’ve all laughed about students taking tests in their pajamas and bringing pets to Zoom classes. However, one thing I’ve learned as I’ve watched students in the virtual classroom is that they still care how they are perceived by their teachers, and more importantly, their peers. My son’s English class is starting to put on a virtual performance of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Shakespeare would have a lot to say, but they are actually putting their full selves into the roles. They have to show up and figure out how to seize the virtual microphone. If this model expands, like I think it will, we have a great opportunity to use it to equip students with even better skills for communicating ideas and enhancing their virtual presence.
Believe me. It’s not perfect. My children are so ready to go back to school to be with their friends physically. However, I’m so encouraged to begin seeing a few of the pieces that are working well. We shouldn’t waste the chance to document them, enhance them, and then scale them to the physical and distance learning realm.
So, what are you learning about this new medium? Take some time to watch your kiddos and their teachers in action. Then, let’s not miss the opportunity to use their creativity and inventiveness to transform how we all learn.
May 26, 2020
Last week, the principal of our elementary school announced to our ten‐inch by seven‐inch digital classroom that “school is officially closed” for the summer. Normally, that big moment is preceded by field days, farewell performances, and end‐of‐year teacher conferences. This year, it just landed as a joyful edict. Put your distance learning devices down. We survived our two‐month experiment. It’s over.
Is it? In the same written communication that celebrated the end of the school year, our headmaster communicated that work was officially underway for planning for alternative deliveries in the event that Coronavirus interrupted our school year once again. He assured families that the goal is to open in August. However, plans would be in place to adapt in case we saw another surge.
Two months ago, I called on teachers and administrators not to waste this opportunity to reimagine the classroom of the 21st century in light of the realities of COVID‐19. Some districts, like our public school system in Knoxville, went down the path of using the crisis to approve funding for a more robust one‐to‐one technology solution by spending $7m on laptops. Now, the focus has to be on securing adequate wireless coverage so that the computers can be used. Here’s my advice, though, after spending twenty years rethinking how adults learn in a distance environment. Don’t solely settle for a technology solution. Instead, recognize that only the human difference can serve as the catalyst to ensure your physical classroom and technologically enhanced platforms can succeed whether in crisis or in calm.
Here are the crucial ways that the initiative and energy of faculty made the difference rather than simply relying on technology:
Consistency: One of the defining features of our children’s distance learning this spring was the expectation that there were defined times and methods for each of them to interact with their teachers. The predictability and regularity of the interactions created a desire to get assignments done and to ensure that learning still occurred. If assignments or projects had been simply archived or posted onto a platform, my sense is that our children would have been more apt to bypass the work or to disengage. In the same way that no one likes to disappoint a teacher in the classroom, students feel compelled to act if teachers create consistency in interaction.
Community: Don’t tell my children this, but I would have been satisfied with our distance learning experience for the simple fact that our teachers “forced” community during this isolated time. I walked into plenty of virtual show and tell sessions or impromptu sing alongs, but I also overheard students really pouring their hearts out to teachers and peers about the difficulty of this time. It will be years before we understand the true emotional toll COVID‐19 has taken on this generation of students. However, many teachers were able to make the seamless transition from instructor to empathetic counselor without a secondary degree. This will only be enhanced with upskilling and preparation for alternative delivery.
Creativity: When I first thought about the opportunity to redefine the classroom because of COVID‐19, I knew our teachers would rise to the occasion if schools just got out of the way. Our children’s teachers used TikToks, shark tank pitches, virtual field trips, online theater performances, Cecil B. DeMille‐like video projects, Cahoots, interactive quizzes, author interviews, mindfulness sessions, and everything in between to engage students around the content. Now, it’s time to give teachers the same freedom to be as creative with the cadence and method of delivery. Don’t settle for the argument that teachers can’t figure out how to reach their students simply because they don’t have computers. Use telephones. Use the US mail. Use those old fashioned textbooks. Just allow teachers to come up with ideas for reaching their students. I have never been more sure of their ability to deliver no matter the circumstance.
Let me say something I’ve said often during this year. Our distance learning journey wasn’t perfect. There’s a lot more we can do. However, don’t settle for a simple technology solution when we should be investing in teachers’ tenacity to answer the question of how we reach every child during a crisis.
In our community, school is officially closed for the summer. However, come August, the school that reopens will be fundamentally different. It’s not the Coronavirus that has transformed how my kids learned. It’s the consistency and creativity of teachers that are redefining how we live as a learning community.
John Tolsma is President of Knowledge Launch, a learning media agency focused on corporate education.