Problems, Pitfalls and Potential for Change: Envisioning the Future of Distance Learning

COVID-19 caused families, schools and communities to hit the brakes on almost every activity of daily life for more than two months. The shock from changes in social interactions reverberated through our society. Anxiety and worry about the future, functioning and health of our nation and world added to the stark realization that we had to do everything at home. Parents and caregivers did their best to manage job and family responsibilities, all while trying to oversee the schooling that was unfolding at home.

Distance learning had to happen. With no time to prepare or plan, we all did the best we could. But now that we have hindsight as a benefit, it’s critical to recognize what worked and what didn’t. Distance learning is likely to be a part of many of our kids’ educational futures and we can now focus our efforts on planning and preparing for an optimal experience.

We can gain understanding of our children and students during the time spent at home in the midst of this pandemic. While some parents reported that their children enjoyed the time at home, multi-tasked and were easily able to finish work, others voiced a different experience. Not all students learn and engage in the same manner. We survived, but we really need to take a closer look and evaluate the whole experience. We can view the time at home as a “test case” for what our children need as well as what “worked” for them individually as they studied, learned and grew academically as students and young people. 

Some students were overwhelmed by the assignments, technology and independent work.  They disengaged and disconnected, turning off microphones and videos. In his article, Grades Fail at Motivating Students. Intrinsic Motivation Works Better for EdSurge, Tim Klein exposes a flaw in our educational system: grades. He discusses how research regarding students’ motivation and grades contradicts people’s widely held belief that students will work hard to get good grades. During the pandemic, we saw many students who “didn’t care” or viewed school work as “pointless” once their school switched to a Pass/Fail grading system or “completion only.” Seeing students “give up” because they weren’t being graded might make it seem like our widely held beliefs about grades working to motivate students are true, but it’s more likely that grades didn’t motivate our students to learn, they just gave our students the impression that school is grades. By focusing on grades, we never gave our students the space to develop intrinsic motivation.

Developing intrinsic motivation to work and learn expands when kids feel a sense of autonomy. Students can be empowered to work hard when provided with a choice of assignments or projects. Looking ahead to next year, this is an area where we can improve. Both parents and teachers can approach kids with options. Teachers may develop lessons and projects that include more opportunities for students to choose aspects of their work. At home, students can choose which assignment to work on first, where to complete their work, or what time they will work. There are a number of ways in which you and your child can work to create choice. Which choices your child makes isn’t as important as ensuring that your child has some investment and involvement in the process. With flexibility in mind, adults can support students as they invest in their own learning. 

Interestingly enough, garnering this intrinsic motivation is absolutely critical in shaping executive function. It’s the basis on which basic—and very important—skills are developed and practiced. In short, it’s how students show us what they know. 

For other students, the abrupt changes in social interactions and connections with peers and teachers was unnerving. Tech & Learning’s Ray Bendici (Remote Learning and Mental Health) cautioned that some students depend on teachers and the structure of the classroom to function academically, socially and emotionally. Autonomous lessons were difficult for those students. The Zoom meetings that were scheduled to assist with learning and social connections did not always provide the genuine interpersonal interaction that sustains some students at school. Students need the emotional and behavioral supports that teachers provide in the classrooms. At home, even though adults have work to do, some students truly need an adult to be within range of sight or some “hands on” direction to help them. Even though students have written directions and rubrics and explanations, many kids just need to talk through their work to help them organize their thoughts and get started. It really helps to “talk out” the work with another person.

Work at home felt laborious for students who typically move about the classroom or utilize movement-based furniture, breaks or fidgets to help sustain their work.  The energy and engagement of the classroom was not as easy to feel as students felt the absence of their classmates while at home. Some parents found that incorporating movement, including walks, playing games or reading together gave children a much needed break from Zoom sessions. Simply turning off the camera and microphone and doing a few jumping jacks was helpful to others. Team TpT Distance Learning also suggests that “school hours” at home need to be different than school hours at school. They suggest considering working for small blocks of time for elementary-age students and increasing time as students are older and can work independently for longer periods of time. Breaks, movement and unconventional “study” areas can help kids feel comfortable enough to persist and manage frustration while working. 

Through this experience, we learned that kids, families, schools and communities are resilient. Some students slept in really late, but functioned well later in the day and were able to get their work done, even if it did not mean they were not functioning within their parents’ optimal schedule. Some parents did not have time to be involved at all with their kids’ school work, but found that their children were able to get assignments completed independently. Some teachers found that they accepted assignments that were not exactly what was assigned, but that the work was appropriate for the standard being taught. Students learn differently. Parents parent differently. Teachers teach differently. Parents, schools and kids did the best that they could during the pandemic. We found that it was all ok.  

The takeaway is that we can use what worked during the time at home to better understand what our children and students need to engage and connect with their own education. For those students who struggled significantly, shut down emotionally, signed off academically or simply felt frazzled by the format of school at home, we need to take a look at their struggles and successes. Taking inventory of what worked and didn’t work for individual students while working through their school work at home can be critical to understanding what students need in a typical school environment or another distance learning scenario next year.

Posted in Articles, School and Homework, Uncategorized.