Friday, 17 April 2020

Closing the Distance-Learning Gap


Shifting to fulltime distance learning during the COVID-19 crisis has been an unexpected shock for even the most prepared schools. Moving from a controlled and structured school environment to supporting learners at home has created a whole new set of conditions for teachers and students alike.

As the publishers of BrightFish Reading, we made the decision early on to offer our online instructional program at no charge during the closures. That was the easy part. The avalanche of requests that followed made things significantly more complicated as we rushed to get hundreds of new schools set up in a matter of days – and in some cases, hours. While I won’t go into the gory details of the myriad devices, browsers and Wi-Fi issues we’ve encountered in these past few weeks, there are a few interesting themes that have emerged so far.

Here are some of our “lessons learned” from the brave new world of virtual education:   

1.       You really can have too many enrollment options: Getting teachers and students set up for online programs is relatively straightforward in a typical school environment. We provide several class rostering options – Clever, ClassLink, Google Classroom  and offer import tools for enrolling students directly in the BrightFish platform. In the rush to get going, many teachers chose multiple methods, resulting in duplicate classrooms and general confusion. All of this was fairly easy to straighten out but left us with a major action item to rethink the whole sign-up process. (When things settle down we’ll get to it.) 

2.       Email is good but live chat is better: Since teachers and students are working from remote locations, there is no school office number to call to provide support. Usually we have only an email address for teachers and no contact information for students. Live chat has been a major tool in getting teachers and students the help they need in the moment. Email is OK for follow-up, but there’s nothing like having an interactive conversation to answer questions and troubleshoot tech and setup issues. Our live chat traffic has increased 10-fold and most issues can be resolved in a matter of minutes. It was an important tool before the closures and absolutely critical in this environment.  

3.       Expectations matter: If anyone ever questioned the role of teachers in online learning, the experience of the past few weeks underlines how critical teachers are to the process. Video conferencing, messaging, email, phone – teachers are finding creative ways to provide instruction and guidance to their students. We can see the impact in the data. Teachers who have been rigorous in setting clear expectations, monitoring students’ work and providing regular feedback are seeing really high usage rates and continued improvement in scores for their BrightFish Reading activities. Many students are getting higher time on task and we’re seeing spikes in weekend and evening usage.

4.       Screen time is irrelevant: Many of our teachers are reporting parents saying “Johnny and Janie have been on the computer for 2 hours this week.” Yet our usage reports show only 30 minutes of work in BrightFish Reading. There’s nothing wrong with the data – just that we report on time on task (TOT) based on completed work. TOT is a really useful productivity measure when you’re teaching students remotely. It doesn’t matter how long they have been logged into their device or staring at their computer screen. Measures that capture completed work, such as time on task, help teachers see exactly how focused and productive their students are in whatever program they are using. In distance learning, access to data showing time spent on completed work is an important tool for teachers to monitor their remote learners.
 
5.        Self-paced learning gives students control: One of the benefits of self-paced learning programs is that they put the student at the center. The role of the teacher is to guide, monitor and remediate. Students gain more control over their own learning – and more responsibility for using the available tools to track and improve their performance. In a virtual learning environment, teachers can review their students' data and provide personalized feedback and remediation based on individual areas of weakness.    

6.       Motivation is possible from a distance: Teachers are finding new ways to be present for students, whether it’s using video conference tools or just checking in daily to provide support. Online tools can also be effective in keeping students motivated while learning remotely. A few tools that teachers have been using in BrightFish Reading include creating reward cards that can be redeemed for extra credit and topping up points for achieving personal best scores. We’ve posted ideas in our Virtual Learning Center and we’re sharing tips from BrightFish teachers.

Visit our Virtual Learning Center here.

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