The shockwaves and impact of COVID-19 are significant in our country and one large change we are undergoing is the educational shift to distance learning. School-aged children are staying at home and some families are charged with the task of facilitating and overseeing distance learning. But what is distance learning and how can we do it well?
Distance learning is the buzzword around the entire globe right now. It is new for students that have been going to traditional “brick and mortar” schools but we have actually been using this structure in education for decades. It is synonymous with online learning, e-learning, or distance education, where students are physically separated from their teachers during instruction through online technology to facilitate communication and learning. The difference between online learning and distance learning, however, is location because students can still use online learning programs at school with the teacher’s supervision where distance learning is being physically separated from the educator.
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Types of Distance Learning
We are seeing school districts around the country try to quickly adapt and figure out which type of distance learning model is best. Here is a list of different types of distance education:
Fixed Schedule Online Learning
This is the most common type of distance learning where students log into a classroom platform at a specific time. Online ESL teaching companies like VIPKID use fixed time online learning as students choose the time in their time zone that they want to take the lesson and meet the teacher in their classroom. This type of learning benefits students in terms of environmental choice but not flexibility of time.
Video conferencing can be done with a teacher and one student or an entire class of students virtually. Teachers have the opportunity to mute participants so they can only hear the teacher speak or select students to share ideas in conversations. Video conferences have chat boxes where teachers can pause and ask students to type their answers to ensure all students are doing the meta-cognition work.
During this COVID-19 distance learning time, a lot of teachers are holding virtual classes for their students at a designated time everyday on platforms like Zoom. This is an example of a fixed-time video conferencing classroom. It is a combination of the two types of learning because the students log into zoom at a specific time, instead of programs like youtube where the video can be watched whenever it works within the students’ schedule.
Open Schedule Online Learning
This type of online learning is the most flexible in terms of time and is what many schools are trying to implement for high school and college students during this COVID-19 distance learning time. Students are given deadlines for work to be submitted but they use different online materials at their own pace. Students who love independence, have attention difficulties, or have hectic schedules thrive in this type of distance learning. They are able to learn during the time that is best for them.
Hybrid Online Learning
Hybrid or blended online learning utilizes online learning and traditional classroom environments. Students are required to do a large portion of their coursework online but must meet in person with their class weekly or monthly. This type of learning structure helps hold students accountable for completing coursework in a timely fashion to prepare for in person classroom discussions and assessments.
Advantages of Distance Learning
Accessibility and Flexibility
Accessibility is a huge benefit of distance learning. Students can access their classroom, materials, virtual classrooms, discussion boards, institutions and more from any electronic device. Students have access to the material and can return to these materials at any point in the future. For example, if a student becomes ill and misses a few weeks of school, they are at a severe disadvantage of missing these lessons. If the student is using distance learning though, the lessons are saved on the different platforms and can be viewed and reviewed at the students’ convenience.
Distance learning can also benefit and enhance the education experience of students with learning disabilities. Students that might be overstimulated by a large group of students can choose a better learning environment for themselves in order to be successful. Students who struggle with focusing their attention have the opportunity to incorporate breaks and chunk the lessons into manageable chunks for themselves.
Enhancing Traditional Educational Methods
One of the largest benefits of distance learning is the opportunity to receive education from highly qualified professionals and connect with others around the globe remotely. In traditional brick and mortar classrooms, you only have access to the teachers that work in that school and mostly the one to five teachers you interact with on a daily basis. Distance learning gives educators the ability to connect their learners with highly qualified professionals, other learning communities, places through virtual tours, learning tools, and their peers through conversations.
Currently, we are seeing a surge of free, virtual field trips to zoos, aquariums and educational facilities around the country. Students are able to experience places they might never get the chance to travel to, themselves, and get the opportunity to learn more about topics they are truly invested in learning about. Teachers in traditional classrooms use virtual field trips as a way to enrich the curriculum and content the students are currently learning about. Many families are taking advantage of these incredible offerings to help structure their distance learning time at home.
Secondary or Postsecondary Education Benefits
Colleges and secondary education have been using distance learning because of its many benefits. Students can “earn as they learn” by joining the workforce full time and earning their degrees online at the same time. It also saves time and money so students do not need to travel to the universities. The type of distance learning varies depending on the university and the type of degree students are striving to earn.
Challenges of Distance Learning
Distractions Take Away from Learning
Self discipline is an important skill in order to be successful in distance learning. Students can easily be distracted by other social media platforms, people, or their environment. Try to set up a space conducive for learning and free from physical distractions to help. Setting a timer and allowing breaks will help students stay engaged fully during distance learning lessons.
Accessibility is a huge benefit of distance learning but can be a huge disadvantage if families do not have access to technology. There can be significant troubles if there are technology or connection issues or if the student or family is not tech-savvy.
During this COVID-19 time, educators are trying to provide computers to families that do not own them, send simple emails without graphics to avoid using too much data and costing families money, and provide times where families can pick up physical learning materials and packets from schools to complete at home.
Quality of Learning
High quality instruction is what best teaches students, not technology. Some classes are not well suited to be taught strictly online. Some teachers who offer or are hired to teach distance learning classes might not be the best or highly qualified. Inversely, the teacher might be the best teacher for the content but online platforms are not the best, most comfortable platform for them to teach on.
We see now thousands of teachers that have not been trained or have ever taught online being asked to do so. Districts need to be clear on which structure of distance learning they want their teachers to use and which platforms to use so teachers can focus their time and energies on those tools. Communication between administrators to teachers and teachers to families needs to be open, clear, consistent, and solution-oriented to ensure our students are learning and thriving during this time.
We, as a global community of educators must navigate these new waters of distance learning during this pandemic. In order to do this effectively, we must be aware of distance learning structures to determine which one is best for the student population that we serve and the resources we have available. We must enhance online learning with its advantages and proactively plan for and address its challenges so our students can be successful.