Virtual challenges of distance learning

The new normal in education - virtual learning - has created obstacles for school communities to overcome, so how do teachers make life simpler for students in these different times? I 2 min 30 sec read
Virtual challenges of distance learning

I am the middle school principal at country day school, Costa Rica, an international school that is part of the Nord Anglia family of schools. My first degree is in philosophy and literature, I have a Master's in public policy and my interests are education policy, wellbeing and meditation. All Costa Rican schools are currently closed due to COVID 19, so all our students are participating in the Nord Anglia Virtual School experience from their homes.    

As we adjust to this new distance learning reality, it's even more essential to find ways to reduce the extraneous load upon pupils' working memory caused by distractions at home. Teachers don't have the standard queues of facial expression, tone of voice, and the ability to see whether Charlie is passing a note to Frankie as they would in face to face teaching. The virtual world of online learning has added to the challenges teachers must overcome, such as, knowing if a student's attention and thoughts are focused on tasks that are cognitively relevant.  

Why is distance learning more challenging?  The reason why distance learning is more challenging are obvious, especially for a couple of sixth-grade students competing against one another to see whether a Daschund or Poodle could eat more wotsits. There is also the holy trinity of online games, Fornite, Fifa, and Minecraft, accomplished at engaging student's working attentional resources and daunting digital adversaries in more ways than one. In addition, the emotional complications created by economic uncertainty, working parents, noisy brothers and sisters, less control over mobile phones - means now more than ever, we should be trying to simplify life for students.  

How can we mitigate it?  Given the pressures students continue to experience during the pandemic, it's even more critical to space out student learning into chunks, to ensure the tasks and activities set are achievable within a specified timeframe. We should be sceptical about purported metacognitive gains achieved by assigning projects, especially when measured against additional load factors distance places upon student's attentional resources. It's not acceptable to say something like "they are learning to be organized or autonomous" or justify gaps in student learning with other false platitudes. The students whose academic results suffer as a result of extensive, multi-step projects will be those who are already struggling at school. 

Why are metacognitive gains speculative? It’s becoming increasingly clear that metacognition requires direct instruction and modeling as much as anything else. We can’t assume just by organizing a great deal of work and deciding when and how to complete it, metacognitive thinking in students will automatically develop. 

Teachers need to adapt their methods of teaching. It is also the teacher's responsibility to understand concepts like interleaving and spacing effects. If students receive a week's worth of learning all at once, the school should ensure that this knowledge is strategically and thoughtfully distributed to their students throughout the year. Student's, especially middle school age, cannot be expected to work this out for themselves. We know that spacing out information related to one topic throughout the year benefits students learning more effectively, compared to studying a topic for three hours straight. 

And, don't forget, individual teachers often don't consider the work set by their fellow teachers. It can be overwhelming for a student to worry about when and how to arrange their life and complete the Math project, the extended writing in ELA and write a research paper in history. It's up to the teachers administering the lessons to create and enforce expectations around how much work to set students, the schedule they are expected to work towards, and coordinate the delivery of information with other teachers in the school community. 

Teachers have created flexible learning environments to enable students to continue their studies at home while social distancing measures are still at play, so what are some of the innovative practices you are using to maintain students attention in the virtual classroom? 

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