4 key lessons for schools from an online learning expert

Schools now have a unique chance to redefine education—an evolution that would have taken years to occur without the pandemic.
By: | February 9, 2021
Adobe Stock Images

Megan O’Reilly Palevich, M.Ed., is Head of School at Laurel Springs School.

As we reflect on a truly historic year in education, there are plenty of lessons for educators to take with them as we embark on a new year. While each day’s headlines seem to portray a dire situation, the reality is that we have an opportunity to transform education as we know it: and here are four lessons that can give us a head-start.

Demonstrate agility

After the COVID-19 crisis forced traditional schools to quickly transition to online learning in March 2020, many are still grappling with technology issues, training, and access for both staff and students nearly a year later. Additionally, schools continue to operate under the misconception that school should take place five days per week and with seven straight hours of learning per day. Students are then exposed only to a passive instructional model, and as a result, may experience disengagement, fatigue, and a lack of purpose-driven learning opportunities—especially when school is taking place exclusively via Zoom.

Schools and teachers must not only adapt to a rapidly evolving pandemic, but also to the needs of their students: and this means they need to be agile in their delivery of schooling. Even as the initial challenges of online instruction are surmounted and schools begin to define their ‘new normal,’ families will begin to seek the flexibility that accompanies an effective online learning model. In traditional schools where attendance and seat-time tracking has become the norm, that flexibility is unsustainable. In a mastery-based, primarily asynchronous learning model, students can take the time that they need, when and where they need it, to succeed academically.

“Flip” your approach

As schools work to develop an effective learning management system (LMS) to support this new instructional model, they must also focus on building a digital curriculum that ensures equitable access and a quality online learning experience for all students. All activities, content, and assessments should be made available asynchronously through the LMS, while synchronous live sessions are delivered virtually or in-person, should face-to-face instruction become an option again. Either way, a shift in approach to synchronous class time must also take place: live sessions should be used for learning application and debate—not delivering lectures that could be housed in the LMS.

This flipped approach to schooling and push toward online learning will enable educators to rethink and redefine the way they deliver instruction, while giving students the space to demonstrate mastery of core concepts in a way they may not have been able to previously in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting.

More from DA

Think about your students as individuals

Any student can pursue online education with a teacher who understands their learning needs and the appropriate infrastructure at home. Online learning is a modality that can work for any student, allowing a personalized approach that meets students where they are.

For some students, flexibility is the most important aspect of an online education: they may be involved in athletics or the performing arts, and they have busy schedules. These students thrive in an asynchronous, independent learning environment. On the other hand, some students may need more scheduled learning time and synchronous meetings. With a blended approach, teachers have the latitude to get to know who their students are, understand their learning needs, and find ways to successfully engage them with the course material and with other students.

In a traditional classroom, teachers are faced with the extremely difficult task of meeting the individual needs of 25 students in a 45-minute period. Alternatively, with the incorporation of asynchronous learning, teachers are shown a true snapshot of each student’s strengths and needs, which can then be used to differentiate instruction on an individual basis: students who are advancing beyond learning objectives can be given alternative assignments and assessments, preventing boredom, and students who need help can receive dedicated support from their teachers as they work to master learning objectives.

Dedicate time to professional development

Teaching in a brick-and-mortar school does not always translate to successful online teaching and learning. Every day, teachers from around the country lament about the challenges of virtual instruction—and yes, they are extremely busy. However, there are plenty of resources available to help alleviate some of those challenges and help teachers become more comfortable and effective in an online environment.

While schools bear responsibility for providing appropriate support, training, and resources for their faculty, teachers can set aside time independently to research and incorporate best practices for online teaching into their work. For example, how can teachers reach students in the virtual space to ensure they are fully grasping concepts? What does engagement mean in an online environment? While there are many resources available for teachers, these questions and more are answered in Laurel Springs’ Best Practices for Teaching Online guide.

Looking ahead in 2021, schools have a unique chance to redefine education—an evolution that would have taken years to occur without the pandemic, if it ever occurred at all. Flexibility, mastery, support, and personalization can and should be the way of the future in online education. Gone are the days of a fragmented view of schooling: there’s “real” school, and then there’s online learning. As these two approaches merge, families will have more options than ever to find the model that works best for them and helps students meet their goals.

Megan O’Reilly Palevich, M.Ed., Head of School at Laurel Springs School, has been a teacher and administrator in the public and private sectors for 26 years. Her rich and varied experience in PreK-12 education includes curriculum design, signature innovative program development, technology integration, and personalized professional development for educators. Mrs. O’Reilly Palevich has won awards for innovation in science education from CESI and in social studies education from Facing History and Ourselves. She regularly speaks nationally about topics such as gifted education, blended learning, online learning, and more. Mrs. O’Reilly Palevich earned her B.A. from Rosemont College in Elementary Education and Psychology, and her M.Ed. from Cabrini University in Educational Leadership with completion of the K-12 Principal Certification Program.