Making distance learning work

It’s not just about academics
khamkhor, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
khamkhor, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Schools and universities are much more than places to learn facts and improve academic skills. They are places where students socialize and grow into contributing members of society. They are also one of the primary elements of the social safety net, providing food and—as students get older—housing as well. They are places where students can obtain care for both their mental and their physical health. They are, ultimately, one of the primary vehicles for decreasing inequity and increasing justice.

In a world roiled by COVID-19, we are confronted with students who lack WiFi or a quiet place to study, students who might go hungry without the meals provided by schools, and students who are confined to abusive homes. These cases underscore the role schools and universities play as some of the few places that actually attempt to level the playing field and overcome structural inequalities and injustice. Schools and universities can and should do better, but in our current situation, with students unable to be physically present in our schools and universities, we are at risk of failing at this mission altogether.

So, what are we to do?

Of course, we all want to get back to in-person instruction as fast as we safely can. In the meantime, educators have been working around the clock to mitigate the inequities we are experiencing. Primary schools are distributing meals at parks, sharing Chromebooks with students who need them, and doing their best to stay connected to families. My children’s school principal has introduced Tik Tok Tuesday, dancing for the students, and we read his announcements aloud each morning. But as my father often says about fat-free foods, “It reminds you of the real thing.”

What often gets overlooked is the very real need for support services at all levels of education to ensure good academic outcomes. Services that support students’ psychosocial needs are essential to academic progress. Something as simple as including more caring, personalized messages to students when conveying general information has been shown in experiments to improve course completion rates and increase student satisfaction.

“These cases underscore the role schools and universities play as some of the few places that actually attempt to level the playing field and overcome structural inequalities and injustice.”

Only very few studies have looked at students’ access to support services, and those few are largely limited to a university environment. One such study, focused on graduate students, found that distance learners relied more heavily on their peers and instructors for support than on formal university services, and in some cases they didn’t even know such services existed.

I’ve been teaching online for the last four years at the graduate level. I’ve also been learning about online teaching at the primary school level, while helping my children learn and acting as host of their classes’ regular online “playdates” over the last few months. What I have seen echoes what is in the literature: support services are essential, but often forgotten.

Whether in primary school or earning a PhD, students and their families need to know what is available. An onslaught of email messages is not enough. Old-fashioned paper mailings, driving by the homes of at-risk students to wave hello, and social media should be used as well, to make sure that people are aware of all the educational and co-curricular activities a school can still offer, such as meal services, technology supports, and counseling. If you are a teacher and your students are not accessing these services, or if you are a student or family member and are uncertain of what your school offers, the lines of communication are broken.

“Services that support students’ psychosocial needs are essential to academic progress.”

Peers are an essential part of support, and in the anxious uncertain context of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is true more than ever. Yet, the typical ways peers support each other in schools have been disrupted. Tools like Slack and Teams that let students chat with each other online can be a lifeline for a struggling student. Similarly, mandatory study groups can help students who might not otherwise reach out to their peers to forge connections with other students.

As teachers, we rely on a variety of cues that we observe when students come to class each day. We use these cues to help students who are struggling and to determine when cases of concern should be referred to outside support services. In a distance environment, we must rely more on students’ peers to do this work.

“Until we can meet with our students in person to address their full range of needs, we must build in these supports at a distance, at all levels of education.”

Even though we lack many of the cues indicating distress that we would normally have in the classroom, students in distance learning environments are relying more than ever on their instructors for support services. This is a tough situation to reconcile. Faculty—whether in an elementary school or a graduate program—are not equipped to do the work of social workers, counselors, speech therapists, behavioral specialists, and cultural ambassadors. Modern schools have built giant infrastructures, employing experts, to address these needs.

Research indicates that academic success for online learners goes beyond the academic teaching and must include support services that can be delivered remotely; a solid communications and access plan to connect students and services; peer support; and instructors as first responders. Until we can meet with our students in person to address their full range of needs, we must build in these supports at a distance, at all levels of education.

In the current distance learning environment, we are asking everyone to stretch their limits. What teachers need to know is that difficulties and stress are to be expected, and so they must be prepared to facilitate a transfer to the right support services in a remote environment.

“If we don’t want our most vulnerable students to fall further behind, we must re-engage them – not just academically, but by providing appropriate support services and ensuring our students can access them.”

Transitioning to emergency distance learning has not been easy, but for the most part we have done it. Now, a few months in, we are at a tipping point. If we don’t want our most vulnerable students to fall further behind, we must re-engage them – not just academically, but by providing appropriate support services and ensuring our students can access them.

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