3 ways education leaders can make choice part of distance or hybrid learning

For Schools Aug 31, 2020

When schools first went virtual last spring, many would agree there was a period of adjustment.

In many cases, the transition happened in a matter of days, and often without all of the resources needed. Still, districts all over the country made it work.

As the dust settled, a familiar pattern emerged: schools and teachers began distance learning with a make-it-work approach until more formalized plans were developed by teachers and administrators.

Now, many districts have more of a runway for planning. In many states, it’s still unclear how or if schools will reopen. But many districts have had the chance to develop more comprehensive plans for distance learning and hybrid learning.  “Crisis teaching” is (hopefully) over as we enter this new phase with more plans in place.

When this kind of comprehensive planning takes place in education, there is a risk.

In some cases, the need for certainty and control replaces the need for autonomy and choice, especially at the level of the learner. Due to the situation that many learners are in right now, it is crucial for districts not to make this mistake when developing plans for the fall.

The importance of learner choice during distance learning

As districts develop their plans for the new school year, administrators need to remember and integrate the best practices for learning into distance learning plans.

This is even more important for this fall because so many students experienced stagnant progress or learning loss during spring distance learning.

The NWEA has reported that “preliminary COVID slide estimates suggest students will return in fall 2020 with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year.” The findings look even more grim in math, where the NWEA reports that many students may return nearly a full year behind where teachers would typically expect them to be.

Now, as many districts plan to begin the year virtually, or have plans in place to pivot back to distance learning if needed, the challenges that led students to fall behind this spring remain present.

One of the largest of these concerns is student motivation.

Both anecdotes and data reveal the challenges districts faced with student motivation during distance learning in the spring. A Common Sense Media survey showed that most teens were in contact with teachers less than once per day during distance learning. Then there were the thousands of students in Chicago Public Schools who the district never got in contact with after schools went virtual.

Additionally, as districts reopen without knowing just how much the “COVID-19 slide” has affected students, there is a risk of focusing solely on working so hard to make progress on core subjects that inspiring, passion-based electives get pushed to the side.

Experienced educators know there are no panaceas for these challenges. However, there is one educational best practice that districts can leverage in unique, effective ways during distance learning: offering student choice in a variety of ways.

Giving students choices about how, when, where, and what they learn (and with who) has been proven to provide benefits to the learning process that are essential for districts to maintain this fall.

Choice helps facilitate differentiation, boosts motivation, helps kids stay on task, increases social and emotional learning, and encourages collaboration, and these are not even all the benefits.

In order to help students engage this fall and begin to work back from spring learning loss it’s essential for districts to consider how choice can be part of their educational toolbox.

Let students choose how they learn and demonstrate mastery

Teachers can offer students choices about the media they will use to consume content as well as the method they will use to demonstrate mastery of content and skills.

For example, let’s imagine that students in a middle school science class are learning about the properties of waves. The teacher can integrate choice into both how students learn about the topic as well as how students demonstrate that they’ve learned about it. First, students could choose to learn about the topic through reading an article on Newsela, listening to a podcast via Listenwise, or watching a video on Edpuzzle.

Then, all students could respond to the same formative assessment prompt: Explain the 5 properties of waves. But, students can choose to share their answer in writing via Google Docs, in a short video on Flipgrid, or by creating an infographic on Canva. These options can be presented on choice boards, learning menus, or playlists that help differentiate instruction.

This type of choice in demonstrating understanding provides motivation and engagement that is sorely needed during distance learning. It allows students “to take ownership of their learning as well as create a product that feels authentic to them,” as Texas teacher Katie Usher said

Teach students to develop their own learning strategies

Routines are a foundation of a healthy lifestyle, and this is especially true for children. However, our current education context has introduced disruption to students’ daily routines, and it looks like more disruption is likely.

In order to keep students engaged and learning during virtual or hybrid instruction, students need to learn explicit skills and strategies for setting and maintaining their own routines and structures.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize the variety of contexts in which students are learning at home, and also remember that, unfortunately, many may not be learning in supportive home environments.

In the video above, learn why students, teachers and parents love Outschool.

Despite these challenges, students still benefit from learning a variety of strategies for managing their day-to-day responsibilities, and this learning can be even better leveraged by integrating choice into the process.

Some of the essential choices students can make about learning strategies include:

  • Favorite organization tools to use (notebook vs. to-do list app, for example)
  • Prioritization strategies (knock off small tasks first vs. begin with the closest deadline)
  • Where and how to organize study materials
  • Planning strategies (use of a calendar, whiteboard, or online tool)
  • Finding a location for at-home learning
  • Giving students a choice in the tech they use (selecting headphones, for example)
  • Creating a consistent schedule for daily learning that includes breaks

Giving students information and opportunity to choose how, when and where they work will not only motivate them to stay engaged during distance learning, but gives them skills that will help them in their future academic and professional lives.

Empower students to have a say in what they learn

Despite all the challenges that school administrators have faced this year, many are still hopeful about the long-term positive changes that this time period can bring to the way students are educated.

One of the low-hanging fruits for innovation is rethinking student electives, i.e. giving students more choices about what they learn outside of the core subjects.

Today, most schools offer options limited by their staff and facilities. However, districts can rethink electives by leveraging distance learning outside of the confines of their school.

Education has already seen glimmers of this concept over the past decades. As movements like Genius Hour or 20 Time gained steam, schools saw how giving students the freedom to direct their own learning led to surprising levels of engagement and results.

Districts can rethink electives by leveraging distance learning outside of the confines of their school.

Districts may have concerns about how they can manage more these kinds of self-directed, more hands-off approaches to learning. However, districts can also offer the same benefits of self-direction, choice, and empowering students to explore their passions through expanding the number of elective classes they offer. Outschool is a marketplace for live online classes taught by independent teachers that can help districts make this happen.

When districts partner with Outschool, it’s as if your district instantly gained the capacity to offer over 50,000 new electives to students. When students enroll in one of these classes, they have the chance to learn from and learn with not people outside their own community, including teachers and learners from around the world.

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The topics that students can choose to explore when districts partner with Outschool is only limited by a students’ imagination. Some of the fascinating recent examples of Outschool classes include:

  • Live animal classes hosted by real animal experts
  • Live baking classes on cake design
  • Weekly music and yoga lessons

Of interest to district leaders is that these classes happen live, but virtually, so students can take Outschool classes even as schools move from in-person to distance learning during a hybrid learning plan. Additionally, students can take the classes on nearly any desktop, laptop, Chromebook, or tablet that is WiFi-enabled. The classes are also small and designed to foster high levels of interaction. Students can choose to take classes with the peers and friends they miss seeing every day or create new connections with students across the globe.

As districts face another year of uncertainty, and students face more time out of their typical routine, it’s important to consider the things that educators know work best for motivating students to engage in learning. With its power to help students across so many areas of the learning process, choice is one of these essential best practices.

It’s essential to give students choices about what they learn, so they can continue to learn and grow - no matter where school happens.

To learn more about how Outschool can help you make choice part of your school or district's plans for this fall, explore our Schools and Districts page using the button below.

Gerard Dawson

Gerard Dawson is a teacher, parent and writer for Outschool.