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Remote Learning Isn't Going Anywhere. Here's How We Make the Best of It.

A young girl gives two thumbs up against a yellow background.

Remote learning can engage students when done right.

In March 2020, only a small fraction of K–12 teachers and students had experience with remote learning. A few months later, nearly every school in the nation had adopted it to some extent.

Though most teachers and students would still prefer to be in the classroom, what schools accomplished in just a few months can't be overstated. Instead of shutting down or risking the health of students and staff by staying open, schools figured out a way to continue to teach kids safely by rapidly shifting to a different mode of instruction.

Further Reading: Teaching Strategies for the Remote Classroom

The situation has evolved and will continue to do so, but we've accumulated enough experience with remote learning this year to establish best practices for however long it lasts.

Taking Advantage of What We Know

We know a lot more about remote learning now than we did last March. We have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't, and we know what has to happen to make online platforms more effective and accessible. Here are some of the most common suggestions for improvement.

  1. The entire school needs to support the development of remote learning. Academic and behavioral expectations for remote learning should be as clear and consistent as they are for in-class instruction. Teachers should have time to work together to adjust curricula and assignments so that students can succeed in an online environment.
  2. Continued training in the most effective instructional strategies will increase teachers' confidence and competence and lower their stress levels. Resources, including information on best practices and subject-specific teaching guides, are now available, and teachers should build on their experience.
  3. Connecting with kids needs to be the top priority, and teachers must find more ways to give students individual attention and help. Teachers should use breakout rooms, establish office hours, and message individual students to demonstrate to their students that they care about them and their progress.
  4. Schools must reach out to the families of kids who aren't attending class remotely or who are in danger of dropping out.
  5. Schools and teachers need to communicate regularly with parents and students and listen to their concerns. Even when schools return to in-class instruction—whether in whole or in part—some parents and kids might not be convinced that it's safe. They'll need clear information from the school.

Challenges and Potential

Online learning isn't without its challenges. Teachers have gotten better with training and experience, but there's still a long way to go in terms of curricula, teaching strategies, and student engagement. Platform access remains a serious issue for students without the necessary technology consistent internet access. And no one has figured out an effective way for kids to socialize during online classes.

Still, many educators believe that it's here to stay at the K–12 level. It's not likely to be a long-term replacement for in-class learning, but it can still be a useful tool for K–12 education.

And there are opportunities for innovation. In an August 2020 interview with CBS, Axios reporter Erica Pandey said that the teachers she's talked to point to opportunities for more one-on-one contact with students and for group work and student interaction in breakout rooms. One teacher told Pandey that a big benefit of remote learning is that "there's no such thing as sitting in the back of the class."

These kinds of opportunities, along with chat functions and other online tools, such as surveys, could improve student engagement. It is these types of opportunities to innovate on traditional instruction methods that teachers should be utilizing.

Expanding Pathways to Learning

As Mark Twain said: "Out of the public schools grows the greatness of a nation." The rapid response of schools—whether public, private, or parochial—to the pandemic clearly demonstrates how deeply ingrained this belief is in the United States. Education matters to Americans.

Further Reading: How Teachers Can Help Families Deal with Remote Learning Challenges

Teachers and kids have already done the hard work of figuring out what remote learning is all about. But we need to continue working to improve its efficacy as a dependable learning tool at the K–12 level. The first step is to accept that it's here to stay, just like online college courses, Zoom meetings, virtual doctors' appointments, and YouTube.