Article

Ten Tips for Distance Learning

Tara Zwolinski

After March break, educators across Ontario demonstrated their professionalism and expertise as they navigated emergency distance learning. As a profession, we rose to the challenge to create the best learning experiences we could during the global pandemic. We also acknowledged this was a very difficult time for our students, and we ensured we were an important part of their daily lives.

As we prepare to return to school in September, some educators will be providing distance learning to Ontario students. To help with this work, we are sharing some tips for online learning. 

Organizing Your Material
The organization of material should be intuitive and user-friendly. There should be a consistent structure so students are able to easily navigate the learning platform.

Whether you are using Brightspace by D2L or Google Classroom, like your physical classroom space, your online learning platform is the third teacher. Many teachers spend their final days of summer setting up their classrooms, arranging desks, creating special learning areas and making sure students will have access to all the materials they will need. The online learning platform can be thought of in the same way. Areas can be created for different subjects. Make sure you communicate clearly and include materials describing how students can use different technology tools to help them learn. 

Thinking About Equity
The activities in the online platform should not create a divide between technological ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’

Students will have different hardware, software and operating systems. It is important to make sure the materials and activities posted can be accessed by all students. Using the licensed software from your district school board ensures that all students have access to what they need. It is important to avoid anything that requires printing.

Creating a Rich Learning Experience
Learning materials should be engaging and meaningful and use a variety of multimedia tools to enrich the learning experience.

As teachers, we use Universal Design of Learning (UDL) as a foundation when creating lessons in our classroom. UDL is also effective when developing online learning tasks. Providing multiple means of representation, action, expression and engagement motivates and actively includes students in their learning. For example, for a particular topic, you can provide an article, a video, an interactive online game or a hands-on activity to present content. Please remember any materials required should be easily accessible and no-cost. Additionally, by using the technology tools in their online learning, students can express what they know in a variety of ways. For instance, students can create a pamphlet, an infographic or a video. Students love to choose and see all the creative learning shared by their friends. Choice boards are a tool that many teachers use to support UDL and differentiation in their classrooms and are easy to implement in online instruction. To engage students, it is critical that the materials and technology tools provided are culturally relevant and responsive.

To learn more about UDL visit cast.org and to learn more about CRRP, go to edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/cbs_responsivepedagogy.pdf.

Thinking About Accessibility
Make sure you consider accessibility when you select materials.

It is important that learning is accessible for students. Use videos with closed captioning and provide directions on how to use board-available speech-to-text software. Be sure you have access to students’ IEPs and work with families to implement the modifications and accommodations needed. If your board has access to literacy software, be sure to provide instructions or videos on how students can leverage this technology in their learning.

Building Community
Provide an area to build community and make connections.

In September, teachers build a classroom community through fun activities and laughter. It is more important than ever to build relationships of care and respect; however, it is also more difficult when educators and students are engaged in distance learning. Just like the face-to-face classroom, here are some important tips for online educators:

  • Always use a student’s name. Using their name makes them feel special and acknowledged. 
  • Always refer to the online space as “our” classroom. 
  • Send sunshine emails to encourage students. 
  • Be accommodating. Providing students with extra time or extra help is important. 
  • Use technology tools that help students get to know each other. For example, the use of BitMoji classrooms allows students to create avatars and virtually put “faces to names.”

As we do normally throughout the school year, be sure to reach out to families to connect about their child’s learning and progress. Reaching out will help students and families feel connected to the school and to you as their educator.

Establishing Norms
Establish community norms for both asynchronous and synchronous learning.

Just like you would establish community norms within your classroom, it is important to do the same in the online learning platform. Using technology tools such as mentimeter, students can contribute thoughts to a word cloud representing how they want their online learning to feel. This word cloud can be used as a foundation to discuss the expectations of learning online.

Additionally, always starting a synchronous learning session with the same community norms helps everyone feel comfortable and safe knowing that their privacy will not be compromised. These norms can include:

  • Reading the land acknowledgement from your district school board, 
  • Indicating that no one should be taking photos, screenshots or recording the learning session in any way, 
  • Reminding students of a co-created anchor chart about how we demonstrate respect for one another and 
  • Making sure all the start-of-school media release and technology usage forms are completed and followed.

Respecting Copyright
Review all resources thoroughly and be sure you are adhering to copyright laws.

Just as you would in your classroom, it is important to review all content before providing it to students. Try to use the licensed software available through your district school board as much as possible. These resources have been curated by experts and reviewed by educators in your board. Additionally, make sure you are adhering to all copyright laws. For example, when searching for an image in Google, click the word “tools” under the image search bar and select “labelled for reuse” under usage rights.

Working Together
Find a venue for collaboration.

When educators have questions or need to talk to other professionals for ideas, we simply walk down the halls of the school to access rich collaborative discussions with our colleagues. However, as an online educator, we do not have the same access to our colleagues, which is isolating especially when engaging in such a daunting task. Be sure to reach out to other online teachers, teacher coaches, instructional leaders and subject coordinators in your board to collaborate and share best pedagogical practices and resources. Consider using social media to engage in professional chats or groups for ideas and support.

Having Fun
Make time for games and laughter.

It has been a difficult few months and challenges continue for educators, students and their families. Be sure to have fun by adding images or gifs into the learning platform that will make students smile. During synchronous learning sessions, be sure to dedicate time for games and laughter. All communication should be directed to the whole child and be positive. The Everyday Mental Health Classroom Resource developed by School Mental Health Ontario and ETFO has many wonderful ideas that can be adapted to the online learning environment.

Recognizing This is Not Going to Be Perfect
Trust yourself and ask for help when you need it.

As educators we know that face-to-face learning with small class sizes is best for our elementary students. Online learning is our professional response to support the students and families who are choosing distance learning during a global pandemic. Trust your professional expertise and experience and be sure to reach out to colleagues when you need help.

Tara Zwolinski is a member of ETFO executive staff.


Resources

Language: Storyline Online is a website featuring books read out loud by members of the Screen Actors Guild – storylineonline.net.
Math: Mpower is a website brought to you by TVOKids for kindergarten to grade 6 students and features online games to promote mastery of tough-to-learn math concepts. Educators can create free accounts at mpower.tvo.org/#/signup/educator.
Social Studies: The Canadian Encyclopedia has resources for educators and students in social studies, history and geography. thecanadianencyclopedia.ca.
Science and Technology: Scratch allows students to code their own interactive stories, animations and games. In the process, they learn to think creatively, reason systematically and work collaboratively. scratch.mit.edu.
Visual Art: The Art Gallery of Ontario has curated visual art learning resources for teachers promoting art anywhere and anytime. There are resources and videos to help educators build visual literacy while developing skills in observation, interpretation, critical thinking and creativity. There are also resources for families looking for fun art activities. ago.ca/learn/learning-resources/teachers.

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