The authors of new guidance from the Aurora Institute have two words for school district leaders as they focus on remote students in 2021: “Mere Engagement”.
Although much of the focus in reopening schools this January has centered on providing safe environments and assurances that technology be in the hands of students – both must-haves – the Institute says there has been a notable lack of attention paid to what can keep kids from falling behind: Those two words above.
The authors of the study – Mere Engagement: Reflections about the Connections Between Online Learning, Student Agency, and Student Engagement – point to remote learning and barriers preventing students from achieving true agency. Regardless of environment, and whether schools remain open or closed, they say it is imperative that leaders and faculty find ways to reignite those passions in students who operate virtually.
“Student agency gives students voice and choice in what, how, when, and where they learn,” said Susan Patrick, Aurora President and CEO. “Agency puts students in the driver’s seat to take charge of their learning and gives them the confidence and knowledge to become lifelong learners who drive our society forward.”
Agency starts with comfort and empathy, say the authors from UCLA (Laureen Avery), the University of Arkansas (Marsha Jones), Shelton, CT, Public Schools (Sara Marr) and CORE Education (Derek Wenmouth). That means providing a healthy environment of check-ins and trust-building where instructors “change their focus and attention away from the fears of the day to the learning of the day.”
They urged school leaders and teachers to look beyond the merits of the model – in person, hybrid or remote – and focus on the learning happening with each child, to meet them in that space and help bridge gaps that exist to keep them on successful paths. That includes the continuation of distance learning plans that involve students and parents and ensuring their environments are fit to learn.
“With the upheaval of the pandemic, students’ need for checking in and feelings of belonging have not only not gone away, they’ve been intensified,” they said.
How can schools achieve the mission of student ownership and a sense of belonging when operating from home? The Aurora Institute offered up seven different strategies to leaders and instructors:
- Overcommunicate: A teacher’s role isn’t only to instruct and ensure assignments are being handed out and done on time, it is to be a support person for learners. That takes on especially new meaning in an online world. Teachers must clearly define expectations and be prepared to answer more questions than in an in-person environment. They should allow enough time for students to complete work, especially work done asynchronously. And they should understand each family’s dynamics and any barriers that might exist that prevents student engagement. Authors mention TimeSlot Genius and Google Classroom Time Slots as possible starting points.
- Foster “anytime learning.” Students operating remotely don’t have the same luxuries or the attention afforded to those in class. Authors say it is important that instructors offer equitable asynchronous and synchronous learning and to be available to all students. They stress the importance of communication, with students and parents, and be more open to their availability. Scheduling assignments, then expanding due dates, is one way to show flexibility. Another is to increase the ways students can complete those tasks using different platforms.
- No seat time, no problem: Online students have far more barriers to learning and completing assignments. Give them opportunities to succeed and help create agency by promoting competency-based learning. Allow those in blended learning environments to complete tasks in different mediums. Be wary of punishing remote students who don’t finish their work on deadline – they may have viable reasons for not doing so.
- Connect with families: No matter the challenges on both sides, it is imperative that there is honest and frequent dialogue between teachers and guardians. Teachers should ask parents and guardians their preferred method of contact and establish communication through that channel. They should be setting guidelines and expectations for learning. One great way to communicate, authors say, is to use the text messaging app TalkingPoints, which not only can send instant messages to 200 students but do so in 100 languages.
- Engage through environment: Creating assignments take on new meaning and new interest when they can be personalized. Conduct surveys. Encourage students who are working remotely, as well as those in person, to bring and share ideas on their own lives, things they enjoy and what they like to read. This in turn should spark learning and create more engagement and agency.
- Be there, even for those online: Check-ins are a necessity with online learners, and so is monitoring their work, their engagement and their progress. Providing regular feedback, either through personal messages or through generated responses, can keep students on task. Being available is also key, and one author noted that allowing communication via Google Classroom’s private comments helped students get questions quickly answered by teachers.
- Be that last line of hope: Some students still have barriers too large to overcome and will not be able to get online. They may show up as absent, tardy or simply not show at all. Meet them where they are. If that means going door to door and getting paper assignments to them, make it happen. Extend deadlines when necessary but keep it within reason. Lean on other staffers who might be able to help those students reach goals.
As the Aurora Institute notes, mere engagement is a “small thing of great influence.” And significant to the future of remote learners.