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How instructional materials can support blended learning this fall

The Newsela Team
Aug 12, 2020

As the next school year approaches, teachers are preparing for a combination of distance and in-person learning—and as schools embrace this new reality, the question of how instructional materials will transition between home and the classroom is increasingly top-of-mind.

While it’s necessary that materials are flexible to accommodate remote teaching, that flexibility can’t come at the expense of quality and rigor. A study conducted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) between March and May of this year found that just one in five schools had distance learning instruction that met their definition of rigorous, and over 40% of schools had programs classified as “perfunctory.” 

To help schools ensure their instructional materials meet high academic standards and provide flexibility for distance learning, the non-profit EdReports released a remote learning planning tool earlier this summer to support school leaders in evaluating their curricula. The guidelines below are a starting point for schools to assess how well their current materials will transition between in-person and distance learning—and what adjustments might be required to support students this fall. 

Materials Must Be Equally Available—and Accessible—Online and Offline

To best serve students and teachers when school resumes, schools need to provide instructional materials that can be accessed both online and in print form, while ensuring that content should be accessible for students with unreliable internet access. And while the leader of the AEI study argues that online options enable more student-teacher engagement—the study defines “rigorous” instructional offerings as those that “relied on online platforms to allow individual teachers to direct students’ remote learning”—he does acknowledge that “instructional packets have their place as an emergency remote-instructional platform.”

Ultimately the key is equal availability and access for all students, including those with disabilities. The EdReports tool asks schools to make sure they provide print options (for students without reliable access to technology), and to check that content can be accessed virtually through multiple devices. They also provide a checklist for multilingual learners, and students with Individualized Education Plans. When it comes to learning platforms, many are stepping up to provide support: Newsela content meets WCAG AA standards to support students with disabilities, and can be shared and accessed via digital assignments, a student mobile app, or a “print & package” option.

Content Should Support a Variety of Use Cases  

As leaders examine the readiness of their instructional materials for blended learning, another important consideration is use case flexibility. As students switch between remote and classroom settings, their schoolwork will be more fluid than ever before, and materials must be able to support varied approaches including assignments, project based learning, and independent study.

As a starting point, school leaders should assess how well their materials provide instruction for students to work independently, including whether they include resources for families and caregivers to support learning at home. Schools should also consider the breadth of offerings provided by online instructional platforms, prioritizing solutions that offer different types of content for a wide variety of use cases. 

Platforms Should Align With Standards and Support Reporting

Fears of learning losses and achievement gaps are growing as the pandemic continues, especially for schools in higher-poverty and lower-academic achievement districts (which are more likely than their wealthier counterparts to have remote learning plans classified as “perfunctory”). To assess performance and adapt in the moment, it’s critical that instructional content is standards-aligned and has reporting baked in.

It’s undeniably harder for teachers to monitor student work when teaching remotely, but the reflection and planning tool encourages schools to consider materials that “provide formative assessment opportunities” to support instructional decisions. The ability to support academic rigor remains dependent on standards alignment and activity reporting, and without that learning gaps will only continue to widen.

This back-to-school season will present challenges like no other, pushing students, teachers, and school leaders to be flexible at every turn. Ensuring that instructional materials match that flexibility—while maintaining quality and supporting assessments and reporting—will help schools address learning losses and transition successfully between in-person and remote learning. 

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