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Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation.

With Covid-19 cases still on the rise in much of the country, the remote learning experiment that started last spring will continue in most schools across the nation. But even as teachers, students and families prepare to go back to school online, there still isn’t a clear vision of what quality remote learning should look like during a pandemic.

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Many state’s school reopening plans lack specific standards or expectations for how to provide instruction during remote learning. All the focus on the logistics of getting kids back in schools gave short shrift to planning quality distance education this summer, said Benjamin Cottingham, associate director of strategic partnership at Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE). He is also co-author of a new evidence brief, full of suggestions for improving remote learning, published by the EdResearch for Recovery Project.

Because of the lack of guidance, some educators are taking to Twitter to ask peers who have already began the school semester for insight and advice on what is working, and what isn’t, in the virtual classroom setting. Students and parents have also begun to turn to social media, providing feedback on their remote learning experiences on Twitter, TikTok and other sites.

With so much confusion and anxiety, both education experts and parents are urging schools to make remote learning as simple as possible. Simplicity is especially important to families with kids in middle and high school, where a student might shift between four to seven classes. “It gets really hard to navigate if every instructor is using a different platform,” Cottingham said. He recommends educators use a single learning management system, like Canvas, Blackboard or Google, so classes can be found on the same website and students and parents only have to keep track of one log-in.

When it comes to providing effective remote instruction, there is no need to “reinvent the wheel,” Cottingham stated. There are already plenty of good strategies and resources educators can draw on.

In many traditional classrooms, a teacher’s time with students often starts with expository learning, in which the teacher presents material to students (often in a lecture format from the front of the class), and then moves into active and interactive learning, with students participating or engaging with the learning process. For distance learning, experts say, time needs to be skewed more heavily towards interactive and active learning, with less time spent on teachers lecturing over Zoom.

Since schools shifted online in the spring, many educators and parents have asked whether schools should focus on synchronous learning — live, face-to-face time with a teacher — or asynchronous learning — videos, activities, or worksheets students complete without real-time interactions. According to the EdResearch brief, expository instruction should ideally occur during asynchronous time; teachers can use “videos or texts to explain ideas and model process in advance of synchronous time,” for example. Synchronous time can then be dedicated to discussions and group work, the brief advised.

Because so many students are feeling a sense of isolation right now, using that face time “in any way to facilitate the interactions that they’ve lost is going to be really helpful,” Cottingham said. Such use of time can not only enhance student engagement, but also to improve academic outcomes and performance.

Individual learning time doesn’t have to be lonely. Students need to engage with one another to help them feel less isolated, experts say. Educators can encourage families at home to let their child jump on the phone or make a video call to a friend in their class during this “on-your-own” time. Kids can work through the assignments together, play music, or tackle the work the same way they would, in-person, in a classroom. This allows students to keep “the opportunity for that peer interaction asynchronously as they learn,” Cottingham said. He added such interaction “is more true to what good learning looks like in the classroom.”

Of course, all of these strategies are hard to accomplish if large numbers of students lack consistent access to the internet and technology. So how can districts make sure students without access still receive instruction? Get creative with resources that are already available, experts say

For example, one district gave students without internet access USB devices uploaded with a week or two of learning material, Cottingham said. “Those students had what they needed available and then they would just dial in on a phone or whatever the classroom setting was so that they could still participate.”

One way educators can make sure students are responding to the material is by providing them with “authentic and deep feedback,” according to Shawn Rubin, chief education officer of the Highlander Institute, an education nonprofit. If students know their teacher will actually give their assignments a real look and provide them with personal, specific, targeted feedback, they’ll take the work more seriously, Rubin said.

Cottingham, of PACE, said grading practices – which became lax during the sudden shift to online learning in the spring – can also have a huge impact on engagement. “Grading and providing feedback to students gives students a sense that what they’re doing is moving them forward in some way,” he said. He added that school districts also need to set clear expectations of what counts as student engagement. He stressed that “every student should have some sort of personalized, individualized interaction with an adult each day.”

Encouraging student engagement during remote learning was difficult for a myriad of reasons, including technology problems and stressors kids faced at home that prevented them from participating. Erin Flynn, a ninth grade social studies teacher at Gray’s Creek High School in Hope Mills, North Carolina, said engagement among her students has “gone downhill” over the last few months. Flynn said one student who contacted her was unable to participate during class time because the student was helping take care of a sibling with autism. Other students “made it clear that they are nervous” or don’t feel comfortable showing their background or talking because of their home environment, she said.

Flynn added that although some students have legitimate concerns, she has noticed that others will turn off their cameras and use the class time to play video games or sleep. “I have a few students who will not turn in assignments or will not answer questions when I ask them in class. I never see their face or hear them talk.”

 “We’re trying our best to accommodate all student needs. And try to figure out if there’s any solution to any problem that we know of,” Flynn said.

Experts say family outreach and consistent communication is crucial, especially for students with disabilities and for English language learners who need extra support from schools.

That responsibility doesn’t necessarily need to fall solely on teachers, Cottingham said. School and district administrators can assist their staff by stepping in to help with social-emotional checks and conversations with students and parents: “Learning can continue, given the unique space that we’re in, in collaboration with families, rather than putting demand on [families] — because it will take all of us.”

This story about quality remote learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our Future of Learning newsletter. 

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Javeria Salman is the digital news producer. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, she worked as an editor and reporter at The East Carolinian, an independent college newspaper in eastern North Carolina,...

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