Initially seen as a makeshift solution for finishing out the 2019-2020 academic year in the shadow of the pandemic, remote learning has instead dramatically reshaped the educational experience for millions of students and instructors alike.
Given that few expected to learn and teach from a distance for this long, the transition has been far from seamless for many organisations.
But with ‘hyflex’ (hybrid and flexible) instruction slated to be a prominent feature of the post-pandemic normal, the past year offers a range of illuminating lessons for building upon what has worked and improving upon what has not.
1. Edtech extends well beyond Zoom
Zoom and other web conferencing tools have made remote learning possible, but educational technology hardly begins and ends with these platforms.
Many teachers have learnt that to keep their remote students interested and engaged, there are a variety of tools they can employ: from speech-to-text tools that enable real-time captioning and transcription of lectures – making lessons far more accessible to those with learning disabilities – to Google Classroom, and platforms like Kahoot that allow teachers to create educational games and quizzes.
In today’s increasingly dynamic learning environment, these digital tools can help students better engage with course materials and succeed academically.
There are also several web plugins that temporarily block websites, like social media sites, which may distract students from their school work. These plugins often have customisation tools which only block websites for a set period. Some hide every app present on students’ screens, clearing away the clutter and leaving them with only a blank word document open on the desktop.
Another means to effectively engage students is by introducing writing tablets. Students can connect the tablets directly to their computers and use them to create presentations, draw, practice writing, and more. Navigating the tablets demands greater focus and attention to detail from students, keeping them more engaged in the material.
2. The days of one-size-fits-all education are over
By compelling educational institutions to rethink how they can effectively meet the needs of diverse groups of students, the pandemic has presented a rare opportunity to examine longstanding barriers to access and opportunity.
The shelter-at-home period has taught us that while some students have autonomous learning styles and excel in online courses, others need more intervention from teachers to stay motivated. Most 2020-21 studies have shown that distance learning is failing on a number of fronts. A recent study conducted by the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) shows that students are experiencing COVID-19 learning loss of around two months’ progress for both reading and maths.
To combat this ‘learning loss’ and dramatically enhance the effectiveness of any mode of instruction, educators should centre instruction around the diverse learning needs of students themselves. Technological platforms provide an array of options for personalising the student experience, from one-on-one check-ins to dedicated study groups.
It’s especially important for instructors to prioritise accessibility for students of various backgrounds and abilities when designing virtual learning materials; web pages should be intuitive to navigate and teachers should employ a multi-sensory approach – including both text and audio – wherever possible.
“To combat this ‘learning loss’ and dramatically enhance the effectiveness of any mode of instruction, educators should centre instruction around the diverse learning needs of students themselves”
3. Inclusivity matters
While accessibility and inclusivity have long been vital considerations for educators, the pandemic has exposed numerous unmet needs and created new ones, and it’s incumbent upon the educational system to meet these challenges head-on.
The good news is that many school districts have already rolled out services and offerings designed to do just that, from offering neurodiverse students teletherapy lessons with speech and occupational therapists, to providing students with customised, easily navigable iPads that engage students in a multi-sensory way.
As challenging as the pandemic has proven for students, teachers and parents alike, if it results in a more equitable and inclusive future, it will have helped spur some long overdue changes to the education system.
4. Students should learn to divide, not suffer from the digital divide
As critically important as it is for teachers to harness a variety of creative strategies to boost student engagement and make remote learning as fulfilling as possible, none of this matters if students don’t have reliable access to computers or internet connections.
A report last June revealed that some 700,000 UK students couldn’t complete any school assignments because they lacked home internet access – underscoring that without measures to close digital divides, many students will fall through the cracks.
“But particularly at the postsecondary level, many institutions will not want to surrender the benefits of distance learning – including the breaking down of geographic barriers, greater convenience and accessibility, and easier review of archivable and searchable lecture content.”
With policymakers, educators, private companies and the public increasingly mindful of digital equity issues, it’s paramount that these stakeholders join forces to equip all students with the tools they need to learn and thrive. This isn’t just a matter of making remote learning more manageable; it’s also essential to students’ long-term outcomes, as research finds that students who lack home internet connections perform worse academically and are less likely to go on to attend college or university, irrespective of socioeconomic status.
5. The future is hybrid
Growing pains aside, remote learning is not going anywhere. To be sure, the decline of the pandemic will bring the return of in-person instruction. But particularly at the postsecondary level, many institutions will not want to surrender the benefits of distance learning – including the breaking down of geographic barriers, greater convenience and accessibility, and easier review of archivable and searchable lecture content.
A recent survey of more than 1,000 representatives of UK universities found that 73% expect a hybrid learning model to prevail in the future. Getting remote learning right, then, is crucial for not only navigating COVID-19, but also preparing for the new normal.
Make no mistake: the education system can emerge from this pandemic stronger than it was if it harnesses the lessons of virtual instruction to find more engaging, inclusive, and creative ways to unleash the potential of each and every student.
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