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In Defense of Remote Learning

  • Joanna
  • November 29, 2021

One of the things being echoed in the dozens of education articles filling news feeds daily is: Remote learning is the worst thing since New Coke. What is New Coke? Exactly.

Everyone is talking about remote learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden, urgent, and national transformation of brick-and-mortar education into online learning in an attempt to quarantine students and staunch the transmission of the virus.

However, remote learning is a straw man: It’s easy to blame the difficulties of the 2020-21 academic year — the unfinished learning, the fatigue, the stress, the equity gaps — on the most visible common denominator, which is online learning. However, online learning in and of itself is not to blame and can actually be quite effective for helping students succeed academically.

So, why is remote learning being dressed up as the villain here? After trudging through multiple articles published in such varied publications as The 74, Education Week, The Hechinger Report, The Fordham Institute, LinkedIn posts, Future Ed, The Education Trust, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal — just to name a few — two primary problems emerged as the reasons why remote learning is bad, horrible, and no-good, and both of them can be overcome. First, educators tried to use remote learning to mimic brick-and-mortar learning. Second, there were technological problems, including access and execution.

Remote Learning is Not Brick-and-Mortar Learning

Remote learning is not the same species as brick-and-mortar learning, but article after article talked about how students disengaged when teachers attempted to mimic the regular school day and regular classroom when they moved to online learning. Trying to keep kids seated in front of a computer for lectures all day is a formula for disaster. Remote learning requires a shift not only in location but also in approach.

Remote learning is not the same species as brick-and-mortar learning, but article after article talked about how students disengaged when teachers attempted to mimic the regular school day and regular classroom when they moved to online learning. Trying to keep kids seated in front of a computer for lectures all day is a formula for disaster. Remote learning requires a shift not only in location but also in approach.

Graduation Alliance has successfully taught students with fully online programs for the past 15 years. At the beginning of the 21st century, when the technology for online learning was first introduced, educators insisted that this platform could not work for the most vulnerable of our nation’s students. Students who were at risk for dropping out, students who had already dropped out of school, would and could not succeed in a virtual learning environment. However, this was not consistent with Graduation Alliance’s experience.

The Approach Should Fit the Platform

Graduation Alliance uses a multi-media approach, blending both synchronous and asynchronous learning.

The combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning is paramount to the success of remote learning. Students are not going to successfully be able to sit in front of computers and participate in imitation live classroom settings for an entire school day, as the past few semesters have clearly demonstrated. Asynchronous lesson plans are critical because they allow students to:

  • Take frequent breaks without interrupting the teacher or the learning process for other students.
  • Rewind as many times as necessary for content mastery, without peers or evaluator witness or commentary.
  • Proceed at their own pace. This can include fast-forwarding through segments that seem repetitive or have already been mastered.
  • Learn at any time in any place. Some students work better at night than during the day. Some students have sibling care responsibilities, jobs, or other activities competing for their attention during the school day. Asynchronous learning mitigates these obstacles.

For courses developed or enhanced by Graduation Alliance, course design is informed by the ADDIE model for instructional design and development and Mayer’s online learning design principles. Mayer’s Principles for using multimedia for online learning include:

  • Reducing extraneous processing by eliminating irrelevant materials and combining graphics with narration, which is more effective than adding on-screen text
  • Adding self-pacing options to enable learners to process information before continuing
  • Drawing graphics alongside explanations rather than presenting a completed drawing, which reflects a real-life social interaction

Graduation Alliance has been recognized for excellence in online education by Quality Matters, a program that has developed research-based education rubrics for best practices in online learning and instructional design principles. The Quality Matters team of trained, certified peer reviewers has recognized Graduation Alliance in the category of “Outstanding Impact by a K-12 Organization” of their Making A Difference for Students Awards. Quality Matters standards are directly mapped to the National Standards for Quality Online Learning published by the Aurora Institute, thereby integrating standards from the two most reputable organizations in K-12 online learning.

Flexible Instructional Program

In a fully remote learning environment, teachers are responsible for the overall facilitation and management of the courses to which they are assigned. Their general duties include:

  • Grading student work submissions
  • Providing remediation for content area deficits
  • Providing remediation for general academic skills, reading, writing, and mathematical processes
  • Monitoring and proactively reaching out to students who are struggling
  • Active communication with students and parents, including at least monthly progress phone calls

Technical Assistance

For a remote learning platform to succeed, students need the tools to do the job. Students need technology such as laptops or tablets with reliable, high-speed internet access. Unfortunately, this has been a major barrier for many students during the 2020-21 school year. However, this obstacle is not insurmountable. Laptops can be purchased in bulk, and schools across the country are receiving federal funds that can be applied to taking care of this need. Additionally, mobile wifi units can be provided, ensuring that students can work at any time from anywhere.

Tenacious and Caring Adults

However, changing the learning platform to fit the virtual environment and providing technology is not enough. Neither of these solutions addresses the challenges students face in learning to use technology to create rather than to be entertained. And if students have trouble with the technology, such as losing a power cord or receiving a password that won’t work, they will need additional supports.

What is currently missing for many students in America, particularly low-income students who may need additional resources to replace the traditional school support structures, is a multi-tiered system of supports. Students need adults who are tenacious and caring in their outreach, and able to help students (and their families) navigate the challenges they face, which can seem insurmountable. Academic coaches can help students to connect the importance of overcoming obstacles and succeeding academically with their futures, instilling resilience in students to help them persevere even when things feel difficult.

Student advocates who specialize in developing and maintaining lists of community resources and program providers for various needs such as food, housing, employment, child care, utilities assistance, etc., can facilitate responses to individual social-emotional needs and peer interactions when public health measures allow.

As we consider how to address unfinished learning, it’s important not to vilify platforms that can help students succeed, such as remote learning. We must, instead, ask how we can learn to use remote learning successfully by looking to models that have been working prior to the pandemic. Whether that’s re-considering the curriculum designed for remote learning and for at-risk students; pairing students with coaches who are more proactive in their intervention approach (and less intimidating because they do not have an evaluative function); or ensuring students who don’t have at-home supervision have an added layer or support or structure, students need our creativity, our adaptability, and our willingness to look at education differently.

Rather than abandoning remote learning as a failure during the pandemic, we must recognize that it is a tool that the nation wasn’t properly prepared to wield, but that can offer important options for students once we learn how to use it. Let’s be prepared for the next time.