It feels futile to predict what school is going to look like next year — I can hardly think days ahead in my own life. Yet, we must. Plans must be planned, procurement procured, measures measured.
One thing is clear about school in 2020-2021: “Normal” is off the table. Remote learning will be a part of our reality, in some form or another.
Even in the best case scenario where all students return to school for the full day, we’ll need ways to support students at home due to hyper-vigilance over COVID-like symptoms. Entire classes may enter two-week quarantine if a student tests positive.
How should we plan for Remote Learning 2.0 in the fall?
I’ve spoke to dozens of educators about their experiences this spring. Two challenges come up again and again: keeping students engaged, and giving feedback on student work.
Much-maligned central office IT departments showed their true colors during this time of crisis. I never would have guessed that so many Chromebooks could be deployed so quickly. Kudos to everyone involved.
Still, Chromebooks are not everywhere. I spoke with one rural district where only 50% of students have access to any device, which is often a parent’s phone. Like many, the district is mailing paper packets home. Like many, they are feeling the pain of printing costs. Teachers have a three page per week allowance. Can you imagine teaching high school English with only three pages per week?
Chromebooks are worthless without internet access. A district in New Jersey told me that 30% of their students don’t have access to the internet, and that 4G hotspots are sold out through next year.
Even where access to technology is not a barrier, engagement remains sharply divided by income and need. A North Carolina district proudly described how, because they were 1:1 before the crisis, they missed zero days of instruction. However, they also transparently shared that 5% of students have never logged in, for the duration of quarantine. Many students are not engaged, despite adequate access to technology.
A Remote Learning 2.0 strategy needs to answer the questions: How can we further expand access to technology, and how can we engage students who are still getting left behind?
The solutions do not need to be high tech. One Boston school reported making 1,700 phone calls home — in a single week.
One modest proposal: think about what a remote learning “care package” could be for students, in case a sudden shift to remote learning is required. What would it cost to have a slate, a couple whiteboard markers, notebooks, and some colored pencils ready to go for every student? What about books? How can kids read novels in 2020?
Students that are engaged get far too little feedback in return.
The best classrooms are continuous cycles of feedback and revision. Students discuss an idea, consider a new perspective, and update their views. Teachers walk through class while students work, marking up student work where the thinking broke down, and encouraging them to try again.
Students are receiving a pale shade of feedback during remote learning: whether the problem was right or wrong. There is none of the group discussion of a common misconceptions, and no discrete notes scribbled on students’ papers.
The type of rich work that teachers pay attention to during class suddenly becomes “scrap paper” during remote learning. It is scribbled on whatever paper is available and is discarded without comment. Students translate their answers into the clumsy interface of ed tech apps, getting only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in response.
The great exception here is written work on Google Docs. Leaving comments on Google Docs is exactly the level of engagement with student work that is missing in subject like Math, Science and Art.
Many teachers are getting around this by having students send text messages and emails with pictures of their work, or by turning the “upload a file” feature on ed tech platforms into a work sharing app.
However we approach it, we need to attend to student work in the fall and beyond. Well off families with work-from-home jobs are able to look over students’ shoulders to identify and address mistakes. Children of essential workers are often not so lucky. Closing this feedback gap is critical to limiting the spread of inequality during remote learning.
Next year will be a trying one in many ways, full of hard problems. The challenges of engagement and feedback are as hard as any, and lie at the heart of our work as educators.