CSTA Classroom Science

Here We Go Again: Fresh Advice on Distance Learning

By Patrick Moyle

Almost everyone in education is building distance learning activities these days. Elementary and secondary teachers, college professors, and professional developers are all trying to figure out how to create enjoyable and effective learning experiences. If you’re like me, you’ve spent a fair amount of time searching for advice on how to pull off this magic trick—the silver bullet that will solve all your distance learning problems. Eventually, you find yourself beneath a heap of advice, yearning for the good ol’ days of running a classroom or PD room in-person. Remember then?

To pull myself out from under that soul-crushing mountain of reminiscence, I tried a systems approach. If a system consists of the people who participate in learning activities, the activities themselves, and the platform in which they exist, then considering the properties of the learners is step 1. 

Learners tend to have three important properties

  1. Learners have prior knowledge. In this case, the prior knowledge that we might be most concerned with could be experience navigating a learning platform or knowledge of the content of the lesson. 
  2. Learners are concerned with relevance. With all that is going on in our lives, from global pandemic to neighborhood, family, and internal private upheaval, we are reminded to focus our time together on the relevant. 
  3. Learners are collaborative and self-directed. With social distancing as the new normal, learning environments can be one of the few places where we get to collaborate.

The activities we design hugely affect this system as well. For that, we should focus on making decisions that support two properties to emerge. First, do whatever we can to maximize engagement. How can we leverage the tools of the learning platform to get our learners doing things? How will we use chat, voice, sharing screens, file sharing, polls, websites, etc? What specific properties of our learners should we attend to? We all have a tool belt full of strategies for engaging learners in-person. What tools have we added since sheltering-in-place apply to the remote space? 

Second, and just as important, is to minimize roadblocks. Focus your energy on supporting a flexible mindset. Things will inevitably go wrong. Links won’t work, connections will break, systems will crash. The list goes on and on. If you get flustered, your learners will respond with equal anxiety. Instead, stay calm, let learners know your plan isn’t working and that you are thinking of workarounds, and give yourself the space to think of clever solutions. We’ve all been there. It’s part of what makes teaching fun! A few important ways to minimize roadblocks include: reducing the number of places learners have to go in a single session, making  sure files are accessible prior to a session and considering ways to work around potential problems in advance. 

Just a few months ago, I lamented that all my work had moved online. I hated sitting in front of my screen and yelling through a tiny pinhole-sized webcam. I helplessly tried to convert my old in-person lessons into remote activities with the same goals and outcomes, and it just didn’t work. I made up my mind that remote learning was just an awful and superficial substitute. But I kept going, tried new things, and started to shift my mindset. Instead of trying to replicate my lessons, I created new ones that leveraged the parts of the learning platform that aren’t possible in in-person spaces. 

Today, I may not be enthusiastic about building remote learning plans, but I do find myself getting excited to try new ideas out and see what works. When I make plans these days, I just think, “Maximize engagement and minimize roadblocks.”


Patrick Moyle is a Professional Learning Specialist with the Making Sense of SCIENCE project, part of the Science & Engineering program at WestEd, and a member of CASE. He taught middle school science for 9 years in the Fresno Unified School District.  


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