Curriculum & Leadership

A 5-Point Checklist for Instructional Content in the Era of Distance Learning

The Newsela Team
May 4, 2020

At the start of 2020, no one could have predicted a country-wide pivot to distance learning. And just as so many of us were caught unawares by the changes to daily life, no school was perfectly prepared to make the transition to remote teaching—and to do it almost overnight.

With so much uncertainty about the future, one thing is clear: we all want to be more flexible going forward. For schools, this is especially true when it comes to instructional content, and ensuring that content delivery can adapt to circumstances beyond the traditional classroom. Below, we’ve prepared a checklist school leaders can use as they assess their current instructional content, or, looking ahead, as they evaluate new providers.

1. Prioritize resources that are flexible and versatile.

The COVID-19 crisis brought one thing into focus for educators around the country: we no longer have the luxury of assuming content will be taught primarily in the classroom. Ensuring that content resources support distance learning is essential, whether for an unplanned scenario like COVID-19 or over summer break. 

A related consideration is having a resource that supports both the core curriculum and supplemental reading. During regular instruction, teachers need aligned content and resources that support keys topics, concepts, and standards. When students are learning from home, it’s most important to get them reading—and since they’re more engaged reading topics they care about, they need content that’s relevant and authentic to their lives.

A good content resource should be flexible and versatile, with a range and volume that allow teachers to meet student’s needs and address their interests. When this content is all in one place, it means teachers don’t need to waste time cobbling together resources—and it reduces the need to learn multiple workflows and constantly switch between tools.

2.  Ensure materials are accessible and equitable.

School leaders care about access and equity, and those requirements should apply to a content resource too: materials should be accessible to all students. That means content should be differentiated, providing versions at a range of different reading levels. Both the content and the delivery platform should be accessible to students with disabilities, and students should be able to access materials from a variety of devices—or without any internet access or technology. 

While it may not be the first thing on district leaders' minds, we shouldn't forget the impact of having content that is inclusive, reflecting a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. Content should provide “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” for students, enabling them to see themselves—and what they can become. 

3. Take advantage of tools that are easy to use.

Instructional materials that are easy-to-use for both teachers and students offer an advantage that is more appealing today than ever before. With no opportunity to hold in-person training for implementing new tools, school leaders should prioritize tools that teachers are familiar with, and that come with meaningful vendor support.

Though this priority has been thrown into especially stark relief this past month, the need for seamless implementation and low-effort training will remain when schools are back in session. With a host of new challenges and issues to work through, educators shouldn’t have to struggle to implement new tools.

4. Strive to be digital-first (but not digital only)

Even before COVID-19, digital-first resources already had many advantages: content can’t be lost or damaged, students can access it from anywhere, and additions to content platforms arrive in teachers' hands instantly. In a distance learning scenario where classrooms are spread across neighborhoods, cities, and even states, these advantages are only more compelling.

But as the current moment has also shown us, content resources can’t exclude students by being digital-only. Digital resources must be easily translatable to paper and available in offline settings, to ensure that students without technology or internet access can still use materials.

5. Require visibility into usage.

Having visibility into how teachers and students are using a resource has always been important for school leaders. Today, that need for information—especially when it comes to student engagement when distance learning—is even more pronounced. A good content resource includes in-depth reporting, giving teachers and administrators insight into what materials are being used and how.

On a closing note, having this kind of insight into use will also help school leaders manage what is sure to be a difficult school year in terms of budget. Especially when schools make use of more flexible subscription-based or pay-as-you-go services, evaluating impact and adjusting accordingly will help them double down on what’s working for their teachers and students.

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