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Remote Learning with Limited Technology Access

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

With the current COVID-19 crisis, much of the world is facing a shift to teaching online. For some, this is a massive leap - see our article e-Learning in a Crisis for a Quick Start Guide if this is you.

The trouble is, much of the dialogue around this massive shift to remote learning is focusing solely on online learning. Certainly, progress with digital technology means that the world is in a better position now to deal with a whole-scale transition to remote learning than ever before. But if we conflate "remote learning" and "online learning", we do our students a disservice. Many will be left behind.

If you, or any student in your class, has limited access to technology, then you already know this. I've seen lots of justified pushback from educators to the message that we all need to move to fully-online programmes to deal with COVID-19 school closures.

Some of our students (or teachers) have no devices or just a smartphone, or maybe one laptop shared between several people in a home. Some of our students have no reliable internet. How, then, can we expect them to engage in a fully online programme? Where every learning activity involves the student using a laptop with a reliable internet connection?

They say "variety is the spice of life" - in this case, variety is the only thing that will keep our teaching programmes afloat.

Balance online activities with screen-free activities

Not every activity has to be online. Set a task which involves the students putting the device down!

I don't just mean "print this worksheet and write on it" or "turn to page 327 in your textbook which you took home before the school closure". Those activities have their place, but they're not what I'm talking about here.

Be creative, get practical, use stuff that's likely to be around the house: do practical experiments and collect observations or data; make stuff and take photos of the final product; get outside (with social distancing of course) doing something.

The submission of the work or the reflection on the activity can be online to ensure accountability if your students need it. And as you know, getting students to reflect on their learning and understanding is powerful anyway.

A couple of words of caution: some families in our communities are struggling with access to supplies, so avoid activities that would use up consumables that the family needs. No toilet paper sculptures! Also, some cultures have customs that prohibit playing with food, so avoid activities like making a sculpture out of pasta.

Balance synchronous activities with asynchronous activities

There's been a fair bit of debate around synchronous vs. asynchronous learning: activities done at the same time, vs. in their own time.

There are huge benefits to incorporating some synchronous activities into your teaching, to build relationships and keep the class learning culture going, but that puts a tremendous strain on some families' technology resources. Asynchronous activities allow students and their families to juggle the schedule around a bit more flexibly.

Find a balance between the two types of learning activity that suits you, your students, and the particular content you're teaching.

I discussed this in more detail in my free webinar on "moving teaching online".

Allow students to choose how they submit work

As good educators, you already know that student agency is powerful. In CORE Education's research report on learner agency, they use this definition:

Learner agency is about students having the understanding, ability, and opportunity to be part of learning design and taking action to intervene in the learning process and become effective lifelong learners.

CORE Education

It's important because, in their words,

Learners who have agency can be thought of as skilled and flexible. They will be able to connect with others, work collaboratively, and adapt to situations in a changing society.

CORE Education

You can harness some of this power in your remote learning programme by allowing students to choose how they submit their work.

For example, you could set a task that enables students to decide whether they will:

  • hand-draw a diagram to show their understanding;

  • record a screencast video over a PowerPoint or Sway presentation to show their understanding;

  • sculpt something out of mud and take a photo of it to show their understanding; or

  • create an online comic book with annotated images and audio narration to show their understanding.

All of these could then be collected as a Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams assignment submission.

By allowing the students to choose their own medium, you're not only building learner agency, you're enabling students with limited access to digital technology to engage in the learning activity without missing out.

Even better, you'd be tapping into a powerful e-learning concept called "multiple representations": encourage the students to submit work in several different ways, so they're expressing their understanding of a single concept with multiple representations of that concept. This helps to build relational thinking and transferability of a skill.

Use rubrics to guide and assess learning

A quick word about rubrics - these can be a powerful tool to keep students focused on the learning objective throughout an activity, regardless of the medium chosen.

Rubrics can also help you as the assessor to ensure consistency of learning across a class using different tools to show their understanding. Make sure the criteria you choose for the rubric are about the learning objective, not the tool used, so they should be broad enough to cover whatever medium the students choose.

Rubrics are particularly powerful when used to guide student learning, not just as a marking grid. See this excellent article by Heidi Goodrich Andrade on the use of instructional rubrics to promote thinking and learning, rather than solely for assessment. That's a blog post for another day!

Students with no access at all

Of course, if a student has no access to a device or internet, that's a tougher nut to crack. I suggest you get in touch with your school's senior leadership team, as many schools are engaging with their community or with the Ministry of Education to provide support to these families.

"Remote" vs "Online"

Remote learning and online learning are not the same thing. I encourage you to experiment and infuse some variety into your remote teaching programme: online and offline, synchronous and asynchronous, individual and collaborative, directed-medium ("submit this Google doc") and student choice ("submit in one of these three ways", or "submit however you like").

And remember you're not alone. There are lots of educators sharing online and offline remote learning activities, so jump on Twitter or Facebook and join the conversation. And share your own great ideas!


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