Online Opportunities: The Continuing Benefits of Remote Instruction

By Stephanie L. Moore

This week, K-12Talk presents an excerpt from Stephanie L. Moore’s new book, SEL at Distance: Supporting Students Online.

A note from the author:

In SEL at a Distance, one idea I share for how we can frame thinking about how to use learning technologies to support SEL is “affordances.” When making decisions about technologies and designing online learning environments, it is important to think about what learning opportunities different technologies afford (or do not afford). The following excerpt provides several examples around common questions I hear, reframing the question of which technologies are “better” into instructional considerations in online learning. One of the paramount considerations at this uncertain time, as most teachers and students have returned to school buildings even as new variants of COVID emerge, is how to leverage the tools teachers have at hand to center their pedagogy around students’ needs.


Shifting from Instructor-Centered to Student-Centered Pedagogies:

Online (and blended) learning afford you the ability to shift your pedagogical practices so that you spend less of your live or in-person time with your learners as the content delivery vehicle and more time focused on feedback, support, and interaction. We often rely on ourselves to be the primary information delivery channel, by way of lectures. Unfortunately, in the rush to move online during the spring of 2020, many schools tried to replicate live lectures, not realizing this took the least advantage of the online learning environment. Lectures are something you can readily record and let learners watch on their own time. This could be a lecture you provide or an available video you find online and want your students to watch. Rather than taking up precious together-time with learners for this, have them watch it on their own then show up ready to engage in active learning with you. This makes much better use of anytime, anywhere content delivery that the internet is good for and reserves live time (whether in a class or online) with your students for meaningful interactions.

Immediacy Versus Reflection and Deep Processing:

Often, I get asked about whether synchronous (at the same time, but different place) or asynchronous (different time, different place) is better, and the answer is neither because they both afford very different learning opportunities. Synchronous—live video or audio conferencing—has an immediacy to it that you may prefer for certain activities and interactions. It may be useful for quickly quizzing students to see what they understand or to have students do an activity or lab so you can watch the process in real time and provide them with immediate feedback and guidance. There will be times you want to leverage the immediacy of synchronous. But there are other times you will want to leverage the reflection and deep processing that asynchronous activity affords. Used well, asynchronous discussion boards can be a great place within your course to ask students questions that require them to really think about the content they’re learning and to synthesize it. Discussion boards that ask students to merely report or repeat what’s in a text are not useful, so try to design your questions in such a way that students are generating ideas based on the content, sharing those ideas with each other, and commenting on something interesting. In my own classes, I use the discussion board tool for weekly activities, not just weekly discussions. For example, in one of my classes I have an activity where students create a concept map, share it, then discuss and revise it based on the concept maps other students created. And I give them great flexibility in what they share—it could be a visual, a written story, a Prezi presentation, whatever works for them. In several other activities, I have my students work together to generate a resource based on readings. And in other activities, I ask my students to analyze a new example or a new case using the content we’ve been reading about. In one class, I use discussion boards to present case studies that they must analyze and then generate recommendations. These asynchronous activities can be great for incorporating more active, deeper learning that requires time for reflection and processing.

Providing Students More Time:

One of the limitations in a classroom and in synchronous sessions is that they are time-bound. In contrast, both in research and in practice, researchers and educators often see an increase in participation in asynchronous activities, in part because they are not time-bound. In a time-bound situation, you have, for example, one hour, and every learner has to figure out how to participate (or fade back) in that one hour. But in asynchronous learning, learners don’t have to compete for a small portion of that hour and as a result can have more equal time to make their voices heard. By unbinding the time element in online learning, you can literally create more time for students. Teachers frequently report that they find more of their students participate in asynchronous online discussions than in live discussions. This is partly because every student gets equal time and space, and some social dynamics that may constrain live discussions are less present in an online class.

Providing Students More Flexibility:

And as you unbind time, you also provide your learners more flexibility in their schedules, and many of them may need this flexibility to participate successfully. They may live in a household where there is just one device or a slow internet connection that has to be shared by multiple people, or there may be certain times of the day when they have more access or when someone is there to help them. The flexibility that asynchronous activities afford is one important way you can be responsive to diverse learner needs.

Creative Course Designs—Nonlinear Authentic Activities: 

Although we often design courses and instruction in a very linear fashion, the online setting is wonderful for designing very different learning experiences. Whether for an entire course or a unit or lesson within a course, online environments afford nonlinear instruction better than the F2F classroom. For example, if you want to create an authentic activity that reflects the complexity and messiness of a real-life problem or setting, you ask students to navigate, or locate, resources using an authentic process. In one class I worked on as part of a team, we used a scaffolded case study design using redacted files from actual cases, using the nature of the internet to create “websites” that students had to visit to gather information. The first case study was very simple—students could locate all the information they needed by visiting a “doctor’s website” and the “school’s website.” And if they read carefully, they would find an email address of a “person” they could contact, which was set up to go to an email account I created with an automatic reply that sent them additional information. The second case study was a bit more complex, with a few additional resources to visit and some missing information (so they had to think about what to do without “perfect” information). The third and final case study had them getting case files that included conflicting doctor’s reports, a video interview with a family, hard-to-read scans, and other authentic features and challenges. Part of our objective was not just to give students the information but also to teach them the process of digging for information, thinking about whom they might need to contact, and learning how to cope with less-than-perfect information. Whether by simulations that take students into phenomena or equipment they cannot physically access, virtual environments that offer students the ability to explore a setting in a different place or time, or opportunities for students to work and report from the field (field- based activities), online learning can be leveraged to create learning opportunities that are difficult to accomplish in a physical classroom.

Collaborating and Cocreating:

Most of the tools available for online education are specifically designed to afford collaboration and interaction. Tools and environments like Google Docs, Microsoft Teams, and even groups spaces in most LMSs are designed specifically to afford rich collaboration and discussion. Around the year 1999, the web went through a significant shift from being primarily static content posted online to having dynamic, participatory content—often referred to as Web 2.0 or Participatory Web (DiNucci, 1999; Blank & Reisdorf, 2012). Rather than just reading online content, users were now able to interact with the content and collaborate with each other. Around this time, blogs became popular wherein others could comment on the blogs. Wikis became a major source of participatory collaboration, as different communities formed around wikis on a shared interest. Google Docs is really just a form of wiki wherein multiple users can build the content together. There are still a lot of wikis today where users share interests and cocreate resources on everything from a favorite game to gardening, cooking, and other hobbies. These sorts of tools allow users to create a resource together and build that resource over time as they learn and have new insights or tips to share. By using these tools in your online class, you can create a learning environment that is more interactive and collaborative as well as help students develop skills that are common in today’s workplace.

SEL AT A DISTANCE: Supporting Students Online by Stephanie L. Moore is available wherever books are sold.

Stephanie L. Moore, PhD, is an assistant professor in organization, information and learning sciences at the University of New Mexico, and resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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