The 3Ms of effective remote learning

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in May 2021.  You can download the full supplement for free on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

Despite the end of the third, and hopefully the last, national lockdown, it is inevitable that some pupils will still have to resort to home learning in the coming weeks and months due to self-isolation, local lockdowns or even non-Covid reasons such as flooding or snow days.

It would be short-sighted, therefore, to consign all we have learned about home learning to the history books.

If nothing else, we should now harness this good practice to improve the effectiveness of homework and other forms of independent study such as exam revision.

So, what have we learned? I think effective home learning can be summarised with three Ms: mechanisms, mode, and methods.

Mechanisms

By “mechanisms”, I mean should home learning be online or offline? Spoiler alert: my answer is “both”.

I think that some home learning should be carried out online, and some offline. Why? Well, it is my belief that we should provide some offline learning because…

First, we need to manage pupils’ screen-time. Excessive amounts of screen-time can have a detrimental effect on pupils’ health and wellbeing. Staring at a backlit device for lengthy periods of time can be harmful to pupils’ eyesight, leaving their eyes dry and potentially leading to retinal damage and blurred vision. Too much screen-time can also inhibit sleep and interfere with sleep patterns, leading to a number of physical and mental health issues.

Second, we need to be mindful of the digital divide. Many pupils do not have access to a device or broadband internet and thus are at a disadvantage when learning online. Even families we might not ordinarily consider to be disadvantaged may struggle to provide devices to all children and adults in the house and/or may find wi-fi speeds prohibitive.

Taking part in online lessons, particularly live lessons, requires a quiet workspace in which pupils can concentrate – and many households may not be able to provide this either.

So, some offline learning is important but, whereas a diet of online learning alone is not ideal, it is still beneficial as part of a blended approach. In particular, I think we should provide some online learning because…

First, relying solely on offline resources such as textbooks or worksheets makes it more difficult to monitor pupils and assess them and provide feedback. Even if paper-based work is submitted somehow, this takes more time and prevents timely feedback from being given. Progress is more visible when there is some live – therefore online – interaction.

Second, it is harder to motivate pupils when they are working entirely offline and it is more difficult to promote a positive work ethic offline because the pace of their progress and the amount of time that they commit to their studies is not, or at least not as immediately, visible to their teachers. If work is entirely offline, teachers may assume that the work they set is being completed on time but have no easy way of checking this. And pupils have no easy way of getting feedback and of asking for help.

And thus, I would advise we plan learning activities that make use of both online and offline mechanisms.

For example, we might offer a carefully planned blend of live lessons delivered through video-conferencing software, pre-recorded lessons whereby pupils can access clear and concise teacher explanations and modelling at a time which best suits them and as often as they need (pausing and rewinding the videos so they are able to process the information effectively), and textbooks or worksheets, together with physical activities such as exercise.

Modes

By “mode”, I mean should home learning be synchronous versus asynchronous?

Synchronous learning is “live” in that the teacher and their pupils are present at the same time and in the same online place. The most common form of synchronous learning is a live lesson delivered using video-conferencing software such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, and so on. So, what are the advantages of synchronous learning?

First, it promotes engagement because the teacher can encourage – and indeed compel – pupils to contribute to the lesson just as they would in the classroom.

Second, it provides a means of supporting pupils in their learning by answering questions, explaining difficult ideas, offering encouragement and praise, and listening to pupils’ concerns.

Third, it proffers a means of assessing pupils and giving them timely feedback. Although work completed asynchronously and offline can also be assessed, this is not usually as timely and tends to be more formal – written comments on pupils’ work, say – rather than live low-stakes assessments which are conducted as an integral part of teaching, such as in the form of retrieval practice activities, class questioning, and the sharing of worked examples. Feedback can be more impactful when given live, too, because it can be acted upon immediately, while the teacher is present.

Finally, synchronous teaching allows pupils to interact with each other, as well as with the teacher, and thus provides the opportunity for peer-assessment and feedback, for passing questions around the class whereby pupils can comment on and add to each other’s responses. And synchronous teaching enables social interactions which are crucial to pupils’ motivation, engagement and general health and wellbeing.

All of which is not to suggest that synchronous learning is the gold standard, of course. Rather, synchronous teaching should form just one part of home learning and indeed only a part of online learning…

Asynchronous learning – while also sometimes taking place online – does not require real-time interactions and does not occur at the same time and place. The advantages of asynchronous learning are as follows.

First, pre-recorded clips – whereby the teacher films short instructional videos and uploads these to the cloud sharing platform for streaming at a later time – allow the teacher to deliver high-quality – clear, concise and chunked – explanations of key concepts. These can be streamed at a time and, crucially, a pace that suits each pupil, and as many times as they need to.

Thus, pupils’ access to a device and to broadband internet can be better regulated and managed within the family. A quiet space can more easily be found when the timing is flexible. And pupils can manage their own learning more effectively when in control of the video content rather than constrained by the timing and pace of a live lesson.

Second, pre-recorded videos which show worked examples can also harness the power of teacher modelling, whereby the teacher deconstructs examples of excellence for pupils, showing them how to emulate excellence themselves, rather than presenting “here’s one I made earlier”, which is often unhelpful for pupils who are left with little clue as to how to get from where they are to the finished product.

The best models involve the teacher “thinking aloud”, making their decision-making and other thought processes visible to pupils, and pre-recorded videos allow teachers to do this and allow pupils to listen to those thought processes as often as they need to.

Third, pre-recorded videos can be used for the purposes of reteaching and recapping on key ideas, such as threshold concepts, that enable pupils who are progressing at different speeds to fill in any gaps in their knowledge and address any misconceptions or misunderstandings, and thus move forwards in their learning.

Asynchronous learning does not have to be entirely online, of course. Indeed, as I have already argued, it is advisable to balance pupils’ screen-time with work set and completed offline.

So, what might offline learning look like? One answer, though certainly not the only one, is to use textbooks…

Quality textbooks can be highly effective because they provide ready-made lessons with accompanying reading materials, worked examples, retrieval practice activities and tests. The reading materials tend to be well-selected and the presentation of the materials well-thought-out.

Textbooks are written by experts in their field and in a language that is appropriate to the age of the pupil. Textbooks are also logically planned and thus learning is sequential.

Textbooks are also easy to manage in the home – certainly easier than online resources. Many textbooks have answers at the back which makes the task of monitoring progress and giving feedback easier – and less stressful – for parents and carers.

Textbooks also provide time away from the screen and, as well as being good for the eyes, they help limit the number of distractions a pupil is faced with, such as social media and gaming.

Methods

By “methods”, I mean how do we plan, teach and assess home learning? I haven’t the column inches here to explore all of this, so I shall focus on teaching tips for online lessons.

It is helpful, I think, to start every live lesson with an orientation screen, perhaps in the guise of a presentation slide we can display to pupils by sharing our screens via video-conferencing software. Such a slide might contain the learning intentions for the session, instructions for engaging and interacting with others during the session, and a list of tasks. It might also contain reminders regarding mics and cameras, and the use of “chat” functions and so on.

Starting each live lesson with the same screen is a good way of reinforcing rules and routines, and will eventually automate some of these instructions, thus establishing good learning habits.

Along similar lines, we may get into the habit of setting a starter task as soon as pupils join the live lesson, perhaps in the form of a retrieval practice activity, such as a multiple-choice quiz, in order to activate prior learning, assess pupils’ knowledge, and get the lesson off to a quick, purposeful start.

To ensure starter tasks are effective and engage all pupils, it is advisable to establish habits regarding how pupils will be assessed. For example, if you begin with a short multiple-choice quiz, you may ask pupils to type their answers into chat but only press enter when instructed to do so in order to ensure that every pupil takes part and does not simply copy their peers’ responses.

Or you may “cold-call” on some pupils to answer questions, thereby ensuring every pupil knows they must be prepared to answer when asked.

In classroom learning, we use pupil names often. Live online lessons should be no different. It helps to develop engagement and motivation to use pupils’ names online as much as possible, both verbally but also in the chat function. Targeting questions in chat at named pupils ensures they all remain in readiness and helps to assess individual progress, rather than repeatedly hearing feedback from the most loquacious pupils in the group.

When asking questions, either verbally or via a slide or the chat function, it is helpful to allow sufficient take-up time for your pupils, just as we would build wait time into our classroom questioning. Take-up time not only allows pupils time to think through their responses and then consider how to articulate those responses, but it also helps ensure that more pupils can answer the question and thus leads to more varied answers being given.

In some ways, the unfamiliar nature of online learning hinders pupils’ cognition and so there is an argument for allowing more take-up time online than we would ordinarily do in the classroom.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley

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