Distance Learning Works When It's Student-Focused

As school districts look at the most safe and practical way to reopen for the coming school year, many ideas and concerns arise as how to effectively do so. Most of the focus in doing so has been on securing funding, modifying instructional day calendars and limiting students on a school site at a time. As these conversations evolve, an increased analysis of distance learning is emerging. We have heard from parents, students, teachers and schools on how distance learning has been working at their schools due to social distance requirements from covid-19 and most responses have been less than favorable. Most of the negative feedback on distance learning has been primarily that it is difficult, ineffective and doesn’t at all constitute real schooling.

I have been working in the distance learning educational space for nearly 22 years and have never seen it implemented in the way I’ve observed since schools closed their doors in March. Utilizing San Diego Unified’s model of distance learning during school closures where the following teacher-centered parameters were agreed to: teachers not being required to work beyond four hours a day, teachers do not have to turn in lesson plans, teachers are not required to provide live virtual instruction and that coursework or only for the purpose of enrichment and wherever the student’s grade landed in March is where it will remain at the end of the school year.

You do not need to be a teacher, an administrator, a parent or even a student to recognize the flaws in this model. I have heard my own children and anyone else I know with children wholeheartedly mock the model. Why would any student in their right mind complete any of the work supposedly assigned to them? Why would any student do what is considered supplemental when those in charge of their revised program have shown they won’t be doing anything supplemental? The sub-optimal model has generated sub-optimal results and yielded a well-deserved low rating on its effectiveness.

In all my years in distance learning I've never heard of a program with these parameters that was effective. As a founder of my own distance learning organization and under constant scrutiny, if we ran our distance learning program with such parameters, we’d be shut down immediately. We are required to meet the same performance standards as any other school, even in a space that is extremely “difficult” and often new to many. We have supported endless parents and students come to us because the traditional model doesn’t fit their needs and have fought their way to competency within a distance learning model. Just like any educational model, it is not easy and it is not perfect, but without a student centered focus, it cannot be effective.

I sympathize with all schools right now who have had to try and come up with solutions to a list of endless problems, all while providing ongoing support for students and parents that are in deep phases of mourning, loss and confusion. There are no quick and easy answers and it will require commitment to much hard work. I do not believe that implementing some form of distance learning will be successful in any way without ensuring it is strictly student focused and considers common pitfalls of distance learning and the true reality of students and parents working independently.

Our distance learning program had to pivot and change very little during school closures. We had the luxury of relying on already established systems and practices to continue to support students and parents. We just compiled our end of year diagnostic assessment data and our students demonstrated gains at the end of this school year, even during a period of confusion and turmoil. We amplified our support in the following ways to support this growth in an already established distance learning model:

  • Weekly individual meetings with every student to monitor progress and provide counseling and guidance
  • Increased weekly TDI (Targeted Direct Instruction) based on ongoing standard deficiencies
  • Parent support sessions held every two weeks on best practices in supporting distance learning students, accessing and analyzing student performance data and best ways to connect to others during covid-19
  • Weekly meetings with teachers to provide ongoing support and counseling

These and other practices that our teachers have committed tirelessly to have impacted student’s overall performance and on our end of year diagnostic assessments, they achieved the following growth:

 

test scores up

 

This list is certainly not an exhaustive list and we continue to improve our practices in a very challenging space of education. During a time where we all are working towards enhanced solutions for students, I favor the idea of supporting each other within this exciting and incredibly fulfilling space of serving students.

 

Here's an excerpt from my upcoming book on how our origins impact our abilities to lead and problem solve during change here:

Throughout this book, we’ve explored the connections made between formative experiences that involve rooted emotions and how they play out later in our lives as we experience dynamic change. Because of these deep emotional memories or origins, individual responses within the proposed stages of change may differ greatly. We have also explored that whether we are a leader or being led during change, leadership is the most fundamental aspect to successful change.
 
Considering the importance of our ability to lead combined with our formative emotional origins during change, we might ask “How do our origins interface or even conflict with our abilities to lead during change”? Many studies, including my own have been conducted on leadership and its role during change. Rather than go deep into research at this point, I will simply include that studies have uncovered that the impulse and capacity to lead emanates largely from innate abilities and early childhood experiences. It has also been suggested that effective leadership is linked to three conclusions:  1) Some aspects of leadership are innate and unteachable and everyone may not have the natural potential for leadership,  2) Effective leaders likely need to demonstrate hardiness, grit and tenacity, and  3) Authentic leaders build their practice outward from ingrained values and tendencies.

 

Method is here to help your child succeed. Learn more >>

 

 

Dr. Jessica Spallino
Dr. Jessica Spallino
Jessica has a demonstrated track record of building schools that are forward-thinking, high-performing, and often unconventional. She is particularly experienced at building online and blended learning charter schools, and has a passion for improving K-12 education through new and innovative models and concepts. She’s regularly asked to speak on change management and building positive and innovative cultures in schools and in the workplace. Jessica holds a BA in English, an MA in Educational Leadership, and holds PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from New Mexico State University.
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