Online learning: 5 ways to make the most of the student support role at your school

The student support person is one of the key factors determining whether students will be successful in an online learning environment or whether they will flounder.
John Englander is the Program Officer at VHS Learning.
John Englander is the Program Officer at VHS Learning.

A year ago, the education world was given “an offer it couldn’t refuse.” Educators had to close their brick-and-mortar doors and totally reimagine education through remote learning. When I look back at the breathtaking speed with which teachers, administrators, students, and parents were forced to pivot in such a dramatic fashion, I am in awe of the herculean efforts made – and the resilience shown – by all.

This past year has taught us so many lessons about online learning. High on that list is the most obvious lesson of all: learning in this new way can be really challenging! No surprises there: any change as dramatic as the one our education systems have undertaken is bound to be challenging. Forced adoption of almost any new significant educational approach, tool, or paradigm is hard. But that does not mean it won’t move us forward.

For me, the more important – and positive – lesson from the past year is this: Online learning can be effective, even transformative when carried out with thoughtful intention, sound methodology, and practices oriented specifically to online delivery. And there’s more good news: What so many have learned this year is that there is much overlap between the tried-and-true skills educators have employed in face-to-face classrooms, and the types of skills needed to help make students successful in an online classroom.

Many components are crucial regardless of the delivery model: engaging lessons; strong interpersonal skills; pedagogic understanding of how to get through to students based on different learning styles; content alignment to standards; etc. The fact is, good teaching is good teaching. I like to think of the differences between online learning and face-to-face learning as not so much reinventing the wheel as much as a recalibration of administrative and teaching practices, in which certain aspects are amplified in the online arena while others might play a lesser role.

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One area that requires more attention and emphasis when delivering learning online is the role school support personnel play in student success. This is especially true when the learning relies more on asynchronous approaches, which put more onus on the student to complete work independently. In a face-to-face setting, the teacher covers many of the tasks necessary to motivate students and hold them accountable. But when the teacher does not have access to the students, these crucial responsibilities may need to be assigned separately to a school staff member. With this in mind, here are five suggestions on how to make the most of the student support person role at your school:

  • Frontload your efforts
    Let’s not forget we are dealing with middle and high school-aged students – teens whose frontal lobes are still very much in development! When it comes to time and workload management as well as focused attention to tasks, we should not expect our students to be perfect! At the same time, these are exactly the types of skills that will be tested in an online learning environment. The learning curve for students as they get in the groove of more independent learning can take weeks, even a month or two. Those weeks or months at the beginning of the course are when the support person will be most needed and can make the greatest impact. This involves staying on top of student progress, checking in with students, assisting them in breaking down the work into manageable pieces, and helping them develop a sense of agency as they communicate and advocate for themselves with their online teacher. And it will be just as important that you “wean” the students from your support over time as they develop more of the 21st-century skills needed to be successful in this environment.
  • Know the technology and how to mine your data sources
    Your job will be a lot easier if you have a general understanding of the learning platform your students are using. You will also need some dexterity when it comes to quickly monitoring student progress through the system data. One of the real advantages to online learning is that the system tracks student work in ways that classroom teachers can only dream of! The more fluency you have in the technology, the more efficient you will be.
  • Build relationships that are partnerships
    From the start of the learning, your goal should be to have open lines of communications with the main stakeholders in this equation: students, teachers, and parents. This proactive approach will pay off, especially if students are struggling at some point during the semester. You are all partners in student success, and hopefully, that message has been delivered from the top.
  • Know your students
    All students are unique in how they work and learn, what motivates them, and what holds them accountable. And many students have learning disabilities or other physical or emotional challenges that will impact their learning. The more you get to know your students, and the more you understand their needs, the more helpful you will be in guiding them towards success.
  • Training is critical
    Just as online learning is new for most students; it is also new for most school staff. Training on all of the aspects mentioned above must be a priority for your school!

The student support person is one of the key factors determining whether students will be successful in an online learning environment or whether they will flounder. The pandemic that brought a tsunami of online learning last year may be an anomaly, but the new educational landscape it formed is here to stay. Paying attention to the most critical factors for success can make all the difference.

John Englander is Program Officer at VHS Learning.

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