School leaders make quick adjustments to online learning

How educators can adjust assignments so parents can help
By: | April 2, 2020
Experts and educators are already looking ahead to see how widespread online learning changes the way school teach when buildings reopen.Experts and educators are already looking ahead to see how widespread online learning changes the way school teach when buildings reopen.

School leaders navigating coronavirus closures have already made changes on-the-fly to online learning programs to help students and educators overcome the numerous challenges, including access and illness.

The Northshore School District (23,500 students) near Seattle was one of the first districts in the country to close schools and move online, and has since had to cope with teachers falling ill, Superintendent Michelle Reid says.

In “Northshore Learns 2.0,” teachers are delivering direct instruction on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The other two days have been reserved for small-group instruction, intervention, and other special services, Reid says.

“Online in a pandemic, you can’t really mirror everything you do in a brick-and-mortar school,” Reid says. “But we feel like we have a nice, flexible culture of instruction that is engaging students on a variety of levels.”

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In Virginia, Montgomery County Schools launched online learning in mid-March by downloading lessons onto Chromebooks and sending the devices out with buses delivering breakfast and lunch.

District leaders have since switched to loading lessons onto thumb drives and mailing those devices out to students with a return envelope for completed assignments, Superintendent Mark Miear says.

“We’re continuing with online instruction and covering new material,” Miear says. “But we have a realization that next school year, we’ll have more kids who are not at the same level that we’ve been used to in previous years.”

Crafting effective online learning assignments

Keith Butcher

Keith Butcher

Educators also have to adjust how they’re teaching so parents, including those also trying to work at home, can help students with assignments, says Keith A. Butcher, a clinical assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Houston’s College of Education.

“It’s not like a parent can just pick up where teachers left off and continue learning,” says Butcher

In his experience as a superintendent in West Virginia, handing students work packets to prepare for snow days wasn’t effective, Butcher says. He recommends that teachers post short online lessons that give students plenty of time to respond.

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For example, one of his educational leadership students developed a 5th-grade science lesson from short video clips. One of the fifth graders created a digital avatar of herself to narrate her video of her response to the assignment, Butcher says.

“I don’ think education will ever be the same after this experience,” Butcher says. “We’re all going to be pushed to grab onto these tech tools and use them to accelerate learning. It will be exciting to see what happens when we can take the best of what we’re learning now.”

Remote learning ideas from a private school

The Laurel Springs School, a Pennsylvania-based online private school, has made its Best Practices for Teaching Online manual available for free.

“Online teachers have a completely different bag of tricks,” says Megan O’Reilly Palevich, head of school at Laurel Springs. “An online teacher really has to be a master communicator.”

Online teachers have to tailor lessons to different learning styles, such as by creating plenty of short videos—rather than digital worksheets—for visual learners.

However, that doesn’t mean teachers who are now moving to online learning also should simply record themselves delivering a full day of brick-and-mortar-style instruction, Palevich says.

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“You have to scale back and ask yourself what are the essential skills I want my students to learn in order to be prepared for next year, and then create meaningful lessons,” she says. “You have to take project-based learning and choice and give students ownership and flexibility to meet the goals in different ways.”

Teachers should also weave in some downtime and encourage students to take breaks during the day to go outside or play.

“I wish teachers would think about engaging with kids in the same ways we engage with family and friends, such as with social media—for instance, we give out emojis,” Palevich says. “Going into this all-written world online, kids, for instance, won’t understand the tone of an email. So, it’s going to be hard for kids who are so used to being in a classroom and having all the visual,  auditory and kinesthetic stimulation.”

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12. 

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