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Four Key Drivers of Distance Learning

The Newsela Team
Apr 6, 2020

Last month, as the severity of COVID-19 in the U.S. set in, schools across the country were faced with a herculean task: switching from classroom to distance learning, and doing it in a matter of days. 

For teachers and administrators, the sudden change to interacting with students virtually raised a number of urgent and important questions. What is a typical day like when remote teaching? How long should teachers be meeting with students, and what technology is best to facilitate? How can instructional content ease the transition to remote teaching and distance learning?

We don’t have all the answers, but we do want to share what we consider four key drivers of distance learning that can help schools adapt to this new reality. Grouped under infrastructure and instructional considerations, these four elements can help provide school administrators with a roadmap for implementing distance learning successfully.

Reliable infrastructure and training that support remote learning

It’s no surprise that infrastructure is on everyone’s minds, especially as schools do their best to maintain the level of connection that’s taken for granted in the classroom. Delivery platforms and reliable internet are, of course, central to this discussion, and the options range from video conferencing apps like Zoom to learning management platforms like Canvas

When it comes to infrastructure, it’s important for school leaders to remember that they can leverage resources already available to them: for example, Google and Microsoft have virtual meeting apps built into their larger platforms. Using resources schools are already comfortable with can go far in enabling virtual classrooms to get up and running quickly, especially since sharing facetime, even if just for an hour or two each day, helps provide a much-needed sense of connection for teachers and students.

A second key infrastructure driver? Training and professional development for teachers. Addressing needs and filling knowledge gaps quickly is essential to a successful transition, and teachers—many of whom are in crisis mode themselves—need to feel as supported by their schools as possible. Many vendors and organizations are now routinely offering webinars and other tools, but how to sort through it all to find what works best for teachers? Consider the following instructional components.

Instructional content and community that is flexible and robust

When it comes to the instructional resources schools leverage in the new distance learning landscape, providing flexible instructional content that can transition seamlessly from classroom to remote teaching is more important than ever. Schools need a content platform that is flexible, accessible, and transparent, enabling teachers to have visibility into how students are engaging with it from afar. Platforms that are digital first (without being digital only) enable the versatility required of schools in this time, and equally important is the depth and breadth of the content, which needs to cover a wide range of subjects while engaging students with topics that are relevant and diverse. 

If content is the motor that drives distance learning success, then a strong and supportive community of school leaders and parents are the hands that guide the wheel. It’s essential for schools to engage families in these uncertain times, ensuring parental buy-in during each transition and providing frequent, supportive communication and guidance. 

Without a focus on the four drivers above, it will be even harder for schools to address the more complex challenges distance learning presents: ensuring equity for students with limited access to technology, and making sure Social-Emotional Learning is a priority to support student well-being through traumatic changes in learning and social routines. These considerations are at the forefront of the transition to distance learning, and finding solutions is a key part of the steps schools take to ensure that connection platforms, training, content, and community are flexible and robust.

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