Blog 🍎 School 15th April 2020

How to Build & Maintain Your Distance Learning Curriculum

Profile image of Zahra Onsori
Zahra Onsori University Content Writer
It’s safe to say that COVID-19 has already had a dramatic impact on the way we live, work and learn. 

The situation continues to change every day, and it looks like COVID-19 contingency measures worldwide will be in place for the foreseeable future. 

For many countries, this has meant school closures and a radical rethink about how to best keep students engaged with their own learning. 

We know this is an uncertain time for many schools – both staff and students alike. And it throws up a lot of questions. 

  • How will the school academic year be affected? Will terms have to be extended? 
  • How can schools ensure that students stay engaged when they are being asked to stay indoors for long periods of time? 
  • How will social distancing measures affect students’ mental health? How to ensure that they are happy, motivated and sticking to a healthy routine? 
  • How will university admissions be affected? 

Amidst this uncertainty, one thing is certain – distance learning is going to become the new normal in the coming weeks and months. 

But distance learning involves far more than magically introducing a new piece of software into a student’s day-to-day learning. 

Keeping your students engaged during a prolonged period of self-isolation also involves making sure they have a structure and a sense of purpose. And of course, it means ensuring students feel included in a wider community at a time when they’re likely to miss face-to-face contact with their friends and classmates.

Establishing a distance learning curriculum may feel challenging, especially when things still feel very much in flux. The transition to distance learning is not going to be seamless, and that’s understandable. 

So this week, we’re offering some thoughts on strategies and tools to help you and your students make the most of distance learning and ensure they stay engaged during a period of uncertainty and stress. 

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Ensure students have safe & secure access to the Internet 

This may seem like a basic first step – but it’s important that students have a safe and consistent means of accessing your online resources. Whilst Internet access may seem the norm, some family homes may not be able to provide students with round the clock access (we can also assume that Internet usage is going to go up, so some broadband connections might not be operating at peak efficiency all of the time). 

If Internet access is a problem, consider some ways to ensure students can get offline access to educational materials

These include: 

  • Finding a way to call students regularly instead, or using WhatsApp. 
  • Email cliff notes and transcripts from lessons if students’ access to the Internet is limited. 
  • Use USB drives to deliver key lesson plans & education material to students. 
  • Make transcripts of lessons that can be posted/delivered to students. 

Top tip

One teacher in San Antonio, Texas has put QR codes on printed educational material, meaning that students can access transcripts of lessons easily using their mobile phones!

Resources for ensuring student access

If you’re using any Google/G-Suite tools for your students’ remote learning, Google has some great resources for enabling offline learning. 

Find a structure for your remote curriculum

There’s no one way to structure your remote curriculum, and it will depend very much on your student’s individual needs and learning habits. If you’re someone who’s new to the concept of remote learning, this may seem like a daunting task. 

In a recent article, our colleagues over at Edublogger put together some recent tips and insights to help teachers and counselors to structure an online curriculum. It’s worth sharing a few of their insights, as we think they’re super useful!

Synchronous vs asynchronous learning

Or to put it another way – are your students going to be learning at the same time, or at different times? Again, this may ultimately come down to students’ individual needs and the extent to which they can access the Internet. 

Synchronous learning means students learn at the same time and communication between teacher and classroom happens in real time. The benefits of synchronous learning are that students can ask questions there and then. They may also enjoy being part of a more communal learning experience. 

Asynchronous learning means that students learn at different times. There are benefits to this approach too. Students can learn at their own pace and in their own time. This can be helpful for those students who may not have constant or high speed access to the Internet. 

It’s most likely that a combination of these approaches is the best way forward and that some parts of the learning day will be most suited to one learning style over the other. 

For example, a live video conference might be a great way to start or end the day. It gives students a sense of structure and sets the tone and pace for the rest of the working day. Meanwhile recorded video might be a nice, visual way to introduce students to a lesson, particularly if they’re studying a new lesson or topic.

Structured vs flexible learning

Again, the choice between structured and flexible learning may depend on your students’ needs. Let’s look briefly at the pros and cons of both. 

Structured learning would typically involve a timetable that students might be more accustomed to if they were learning in school, where students have set time in their day for literacy/English, numeracy/maths, science, history, geography etc. You may even want to replicate your usual timetable as closely as possible. 

Flexible learning means that students are given less structure. Your class may have to follow a checklist to make sure that they do a minimum amount of learning every day, but they will have some freedom as to how and when they learn. 

It may be that flexible learning is more suitable for older students (e.g. IBDP/A-level students who may be close to doing their exams) who may be more effective at managing their time. 

Resources for structuring your students’ day

We’d recommend a number of online platforms for video conferencing. Undoubtedly the most popular at the moment is Zoom, which recently removed the restrictions on its free version for all schools. 

Google Hangouts Meet also has an option available for education administrators. Likewise Microsoft Teams offers a range of education packages, including a free option. 

All three of the platforms listed above are accessible on any device, whether it’s a computer, phone or tablet and they all have an easy screen sharing ability. 

Meanwhile if you want to record & share videos with students, then Screencastify is worth looking into – though bear in mind that it’s designed to be used with Google Chrome. 

Likewise, the team at Loom have made their pro features free for teachers and educators. 

Finally, WeVideo is a great platform for kickstarting educational video projects and allowing students to collaborate. 

In terms of creating an easily shareable timetable or co-ordinated schedule, we’d once again recommend Google Sheets or Google Slides. This blog from Teacher Tech with Alice Keeler has some useful tips on how to use Slides in your lesson planning. 

Establish & maintain expectations with parents

Whether you’re new to counseling or a seasoned pro, working alone or running a large counseling team, we’ve got a host of resources to help you and your students.

We’ve written often about how to keep parents engaged in your students’ learning. This has arguably never been more important. 

Hopefully you’ll already have provided parents and guardians with clear expectations and distance learning guidelines. This will help to create accountability when you’re trying to establish and maintain a digital classroom. 

If you have created teaching and learning resources for your students, then make sure that your students’ parents know how to access them and when tasks/assignments/homework will need to be completed by. 

Resources for keeping in touch with parents

Remind is a remote learning platform that makes it easy to establish two way communication between you and students’ families. They’ve written a blog on how you can use your free teaching account to support online instruction during this time. 

Make sure everyone has someone to talk to 

This is essential for both your students’ and your staff’s well-being. In many countries the realisation has already sunk in – not being able to go to school or work is going to feel very lonely. This, combined with the uncertainty that the coming months will bring, means it’s essential to look after your mental health! 

It’s important that both students and school staff have an open line of communication and know that there is support if and when they need it. This can take a number of forms. 

  • For staff and guidance counselors make sure there are regular meetings and, perhaps more importantly, opportunities to get together and share distance learning tips and strategies. 
  • For students, make sure they know they can quickly and easily talk to a member of staff when they need to, be it a guidance counselor or form tutor.

Resources for promoting face to face communication

Calendly has a free version of its platform which lets you create and send personalised calendar links and set up unlimited events. You can also integrate Calendly with an existing Google, Outlook or iCloud calendar. 

Encourage student collaboration

Collaboration between students doesn’t have to end just because they’re not in the same room! Of course, if your students are going to collaborate remotely, then you’re going to have to get creative. 

Resources for promoting student collaboration

We’ve mentioned Google/G-Suite tools a few times already. Google Docs and Google Slides are 100% free online collaboration tools. It also makes it easy for teachers and counselors to read, grade and comment on work. Eduflow is an ideal tool for online lesson planning and general student collaboration. 

Kahoot is a useful platform if you want to encourage competition amongst your students, with a range of quizzes and games for students to choose from. Similarly Quizlet has a range of online learning tools and games that students can play individually (making it ideal for home learning). 

Put your learning resources in one place

It’s a great idea to put your learning resources in one accessible place. It’s vital that students and parents have quick and easy access to any supplementary resources that will enable home working. There are a few places that we’d suggest.

Your school’s website

Your school website is a logical place to place your most essential learning resources. Your website’s blog can be a great communications tool (we’ve got some experience in this area) and can function as a hub for all of your resources. 

A class blog/content management system

If you want to tailor something more to the needs of a smaller group of students, such as an individual year group or cohort, then create a more bespoke blog or learning management system. 

smaller shared blog might be a more exciting collaborative space for your students – it can be theirs to own. It’s also an ideal place to store lots of different types of content – videos, infographics and even slide presentations.  

Resources for blogging & content management 

The Edublogger has a great blog post about the different approaches to building a student blog, including insights on student privacy and building a digital portfolio. 

Edublogs themselves are an offshoot of WordPress, and it’s worth checking out their features if you are interested in building a student blog

So those are our tips to get you started with your remote curriculum. We know that this is a time where our schools and counselors are continuing to share ideas and resources, so if you feel there’s anything we’ve missed, let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you! 

And don’t forget to check out our COVID-19 Help Centre for more resources to help you with any questions or concerns you may have as the situation continues to unfold.

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Talk to us if you’d like to learn more about implementing BridgeU in your remote curriculum.

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