Edited by Paul-Stevens Fulbrook
What are the elements of best practice for remote teaching and learning?
The need for teachers and school leaders to be fully aware of the power and possible impact of Remote Teaching and Learning, as well as how to provide it in a high-quality way, has never been more pertinent.
What are the 25 Best Practices for Remote Teaching and Learning?
I’ll dive right in with the 25 best practices for remote teaching and learning. Each one is founded in the evidence and research elaborated on more later in the post.
- Identify the need and choose the technology or approach appropriately; don’t create Breakout rooms that no-one will use or a resource that people can’t engage with without a printer, for example.
- Be equitable; does everyone you are hoping to reach have the same access to resources? If not, how can you blend your approach? Don’t make assumptions that inadvertently make you appear elitist.
- Know your tools; if you are using a platform such as Microsoft Teams or Google Meet, ensure that you know how to work it and run sessions safely. This includes any aspects of GDPR such as personal email addresses, or any potential safeguarding issues – follow your school’s approach and stay safe.
- Make it clear what the objectives are; in remote learning, the ability to be responsive is diminished – have clear goals and make sure everyone knows them.
- Before starting the session or the sequence, establish the ‘rules of the room’; cameras on or off? Microphones muted? Are we using the chat function? If the content is asynchronous, what do you want from students to show that they have engaged and understood?
- Encourage dialogue; dialogue is a part of humanity – we need to engage with others in order to evaluate ourselves, and students who are isolating crave connection; seek to enable it where you can.
- Script it; when you can’t ‘read the room’ you can’t afford to go off on a tangent, as there are already enough contextual barriers to engagement for the students at the other end of the screen – background noise, home environment, distractors aplenty – keep it tight, keep it focussed, keep it crisp.
- Choose assessment wisely and with a clear purpose.
- Keep assessment relevant, meaningful and relatable in terms of feedback.
- Space assessment regularly to keep a clear picture of accessibility and progress.
- Use task completion as opposed to retrieval as a more engaging and accurate indicator of student progress in remote learning environments.
- Make sure students have clear criteria for success in any task, including access to simple models and good examples.
- Plan intentionally and explicitly for equity, especially for disadvantaged learners – adapt teaching to cater for individual needs.
- Don’t assume that each lesson should just be a ‘one-off’; plan well-structured lessons that are part of clearly sequenced curricula, and manage time appropriately to avoid screen-fatigue.
- Consider Cognitive Load. If using a presentation, keep slides clutter-free and keep content to a minimum to avoid distractions or ‘seductive details’.
- Don’t read material verbatim off a slide; this will overload students and compromise efficiency.
- Make the technology your friend – use it wisely to facilitate human interaction through breakout rooms, chat functions and interactive elements.
- Stay in touch; don’t just let the lessons themselves be the points of contact – build relationships through appropriate channels with regular praise and reward.
- Take advantage of Apps that can help develop low / no-stakes testing opportunities.
- Consider how to blend your immediacy with your ‘bandwidth’; not everything has to be whistles and technological bells
- The quality of your instruction still matters; treat remote learning with the respect it deserves and plan for good content.
- Remain a ‘presence’ throughout the session; keep practice at stages of guidance, as opposed to full independence; students at home have enough time to be ‘independent’ and instead want some interaction!
- Don’t fret about ‘teacher-led’ or ‘student-centred’; teaching activities should be designed for maximum engagement.
- Promote metacognitive strategies to enable students to take control of their learning during the ‘gaps’ and the down-time.
- Create, experiment and share; build an online community between you and your colleagues to avoid duplication or, worse still, gaps in coverage!
In order to ensure we enact our duty as teachers and education professionals, we have to understand where remote learning is necessary, why it is necessary and how we can we ensure it is of the strongest possible standard.
Gaps must not be allowed to appear in student learning due to circumstances beyond their control.
In short, the best practice for remote learning is an understanding of your technology, your aims and your audience.
Good teaching remains good teaching and pedagogy doesn’t change that much!
This article will provide you with the key principles, followed by a more detailed explanation of the theory and research behind each one.
Why are we considering remote teaching?
When Lockdown hit in March and schools were forced to (for the majority of students) close for what was at the time an unknown period.
School leaders, classroom teachers, Trust boards and all in the profession worked tirelessly to ensure a high-quality educational provision was made available for all those who had the right to access it.
Rapid evidence reviews were collated, advice distributed, schemes and strategies trialled and evaluated.
There were successes, snags, errors and shortcomings but everything was tried to ensure that what worked (and what will continue to work) was identified quickly and implemented effectively.
In ‘Thinking About Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic’, Doucet et al (2020) urge us to put ‘Maslow before Bloom’; safety and survival before formal teaching. However, the latter does still need to take place!
As we now enter a second (Lockdown 2.0) phase of lockdown we also have to consider the possibility of more and more lessons being provided through different means.
This article will outline the key areas associated with Remote Learning, divided carefully into sensible categories that hopefully make for ease of reading and understanding.
What’s the best approach with Technology (or the absence of…) in remote learning?
The first thing to determine is the nature of the virtual environment in which the learning is to take place and identify the most appropriate medium for its delivery.
So many platforms have taken centre stage as schools seek to further enrich and develop their remote offer, but we must also consider the possibilities for a ‘blended’ approach.
An approach that takes into account the lack of access to appropriate technology for many disadvantaged families, and also the lack of operation wherewithal on behalf of the teachers using it to deliver their lessons.
Consider your confidence as a teacher – there’s a big difference between delivering content to a group of students in the room and a group of students who’s faces you may not be able to see.
Like comedians, much of our responsiveness as teachers is done by getting the ‘feel’ of the room and that is harder to judge when it is simply a set of screens.
In their piece ‘Pivoting to Teaching in a Virtual Environment’, Collins et al (2020) look at the ‘interdependency between content, pedagogy, and technology’ and consider that ‘Learning in a digital context happens through discussion, reflection, and collaboration with students who are prepared to engage in active learning with a community of peers’.
Establishing this community is vital to the outcomes and the success of the approach.
Indeed, an approach similar to that of a Community of Inquiry could be very beneficial. They suggest that choosing the appropriate technology correctly is ‘dependent on two key factors: its support of the teaching objectives, and its unique affordances and potential learning benefits’ – as a teacher you must consider what it is you are looking to achieve and then prepare accordingly.
What’s the difference between synchronous and asynchronous teaching?
We must consider whether we are ‘synchronous’ (going out live) or ‘asynchronous’ (pre-recorded) with our teaching too.
Collins et al urge us to consider how we can maximise what the technology does for us in each situation and how we can harness its potential, for example through the use of breakout rooms, determined groupings and the like – more on this when we look at the engagement of students.
Above all we must ensure that we are familiar with the medium we are using, we orient both ourselves and the students with the virtual teaching environment, and we make everything accessible.
For example, if a lesson being delivered synchronously requires a resource, how easy is that resource to use if someone can’t print it?
Collins et al remind us of three further vital components:
- Communicate safety and expectations within the virtual environment – including respect.
- Have a back-up plan if technology lets you down.
- Have a sense of compassion and patience for students as they make the transition to online learning (and a sense of your own efficacy and capacity as you too learn to teach in this way!).
How do I judge my Delivery and Content in remote teaching and learning?:
As we have seen, the environment is vital but so too is the delivery and the content!
In their Best Evidence Review the EEF state that teaching quality is more important than the medium chosen to deliver said teaching – high-quality instruction can still provide students with opportunities to make progress, regardless of whether it is ‘live’ or via video.
The first thing to consider is the way the content is presented.
Design resources and supporting presentations specifically to be delivered in a remote world as opposed to assuming that something that ‘worked in the classroom’ will naturally adapt itself to the online environment.
It is important to understand some key principles here – Mayer (2005) stated that the most effective content includes only visuals (images) and narration (which can be synchronous or asynchronous) – any additional written content on slides reduces impact and ‘efficacy of learning’.
Mayer suggests the following:
- Visuals should be dual-coded
- Visual space should be carefully organized to avoid clutter, take into account principles of distraction and cognitive load
- Organisational clues such as arrows can help direct attention
- Visuals must be static; avoid animation
- Pre-teach important vocabulary prior to multiple interactions with it
- Use conversational rather than formal language
- Remove all extraneous text; keep narration simple
- Avoid sharing your presenter video as well as your presentation – you will be a distraction!
Ultimately, Mayer promotes ‘bite-sized’ chunks of learning where content is continuous; this not only allows for time to break up complex ideas but also to check for understanding and build new knowledge and existing, as we would in any classroom.
How do I create autonomous learners?
In their work on autonomous learners Xie and Yang (2020) promote ‘learning first, then teaching’; students are pre-loaded with metacognitive and self-regulatory strategies to enable them to take control of their own learning.
After this, a cycle can begin where clear learning goals (a theme consistent with much of the research, including Collins et al) are worked towards with content in the most appropriate format (including hard copy if access to technology is limited), using regular focussed questions that are designed to clearly expose misconceptions or lack of background knowledge.
These questions then help form the basis of the next stage of teaching.
The message for us as teachers is clear – clarity and focus are essential aspects of remote teaching – there is no room for ambiguity, anecdote or metaphor; everything must be crisp, clear and related.
The quality of your instruction is paramount.
How can I ensure good ‘Classroom’ management and Engagement with remote learning?
One significant challenge is the engagement and motivation of your students; they may have logged on but have they checked in?
Engagement with the content relates to anything students do with the material – reading, listening, writing, receiving feedback, asking questions, practicing.
Collins et al (2020) suggest that:
‘forging positive connections with instructors has been shown to play a significant role in student satisfaction, persistence, and success’
‘If learners feel welcome to connect with you, they are more likely to seek the answers to their questions’.
You can still be a positive presence, even if you aren’t ‘there’ in person.
Once you have established the conditions and climate for the learning you can start to work within those parameters with more freedom and personality.
Remember to make it clear when you are delivering instruction and when perhaps you are elaborating or expanding, so as to avoid muddying waters.
The live ‘management’ of the environment is to be considered when delivering synchronously; asynchronous material needs to be carefully considered in terms of its accessibility, clarity and relevance:
- How easy is it for students to be autonomous and manage the resource themselves?
- What are your aims here?
- What does ‘success’ look like?
The EEF suggest that building opportunities for Peer interaction is a vital part of engagement in the learning process – structures that allow learners to interact with each other and provide that vital ‘human’ connection are really important to successful learning outcomes.
Through his blog, Doug Lemov shares a number of strategies for encouraging student participation in online learning – cold call, volunteer, turn and talk in breakout rooms, use of the chat function and use of linked documents such as Google sheets.
All of these can be used at different points to enable those bonds to be created and that interaction to be promoted.
Remember that engagement can be a poor proxy for learning, but it is a decent starting point!
How do I conduct Assessment during remote learning?
Collins et al state that the purpose of assessment in a virtual environment must be clearly defined and be carefully constructed to suit the ‘distance’ or online model.
As practitioners in COVID classrooms, we have already got used to not being able to circulate the room and engage in that one-to-one support in quite the same way, so we can harness what we have adapted ourselves to do and use these strategies effectively.
To go back to Doucet et al (2020), here are some key aspects to consider:
- Assessment must provide accurate information on how well learners have understood the content that is ‘to be learned’
- Assessment must focus on key conceptual understanding
- Assessment should be performance-based as opposed to focusing on recall
- Assessment should target higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, e.g. create, evaluate, analyse as opposed to understand or remember
- Assessment should require task completion, not just knowledge recall
- Assessment should be regularly spaced to allow for timely feedback
- Assessment should be preceded by time for students to rehearse any key skills or technology that will need using within the assessment task itself
Doucet et al ask us to consider the authenticity of the assessment by linking it to the real world and situating it in real-life contexts. Criteria for success must be shared and clarified to enable a clearer path to the ‘correct’ response, and allowance must be made for context.
Doucet et al also look at formative assessment opportunities – our responsiveness as teachers, using evidence we elicit to make better teaching decisions – and consider some of the following options: quizzes, surveys, discussion threads, bulletin boards; for the former such simple options as Kahoot or Quizlet can be hugely useful.
A caveat though, from the EEF – ‘using technology to support retrieval practice and self-quizzing can help pupils retain key ideas and knowledge, but is not a replacement for other forms of assessment’.
In very simple terms it is possible for remote teaching to promote high quality outcomes; effective instruction, well-chosen resources, purposeful assessment and, above all, clarity.
An equitable approach is vital as many disadvantaged students may not have a full range of access to technology, time or home support – this must be part of your planning.
Seek to reassure, seek to accommodate, seek to succeed.
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