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Qualities of Successful Online and Blended Teachers: 3 Tips for Remote Success

by Rick Ferdig on Dec 3, 2020

Tags
  • Blended Learning
  • COVID-19
  • Remote Learning
Rick Ferdig

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I am not going to lie. I have been busier in the last six months than I think I have ever been in my entire life. I am a researcher who studies the ways in which technology impacts teaching and learning. One of my areas of expertise is exploration of best practices in online and blended education in K–12 and post-secondary settings.

It is not that I was not busy before. But I would say, at least at the K–12 level, most parents, teachers, and administrators just did not seem to pay as much attention to delivering content in modes other than strictly face-to-face contexts. People got excited about the work we were doing with augmented reality, virtual reality, and the building of mobile apps for informal science learning and mathematics education. But once I would start talking about the importance of blended and online instruction, most educators would seem to glaze over, wishing I would leave that diatribe for one of the many private or public virtual schools around the world.

That all changed when COVID-19 swept the globe. Almost everything closed, including schools. Teachers, administrators, and parents scrambled to try to figure out not only how to teach and learn online, but also how to do so rapidly. Most were given two to three weeks to plan and implement a full shift to online education.

I will not go into great detail but let me tell two things right off the bat. First, many schools failed. There are reports that some school districts did nothing new during that time, instead choosing to focus on remediation for what they had already covered during the previous seven months. You could almost hear their resignation as they felt like they were facing the impossible. There were mainstream media reports of the demise of education. Schools, they told us, failed in the spring and prospects were not looking good for the fall.

The second thing you should know, however, is that not all schools failed. As a matter of fact, some schools used the online time in the spring to offer new, exciting programs. Test scores improved. Student and parent satisfaction went up. Teachers were re-energized about teaching, learning, and technology.

Please do not misread those last few sentences. No one would ever wish for an initial pandemic—or its return. The point, however, is that there were both failures and successes in the spring. There will be successes and failures this fall. The obvious question is why? Why do some teachers or schools succeed while others fail? More pragmatically, what can teachers do to better support their students this year, while also paying attention to their own mental health?

There is no way to address all the best practices for online and blended instruction in one short, blog post. I presented a webinar with Voyager Sopris Learning called, "Preparing for January and Beyond: Lessons from Remote Learning in Spring and Early Fall", during which I address what we've learned and what we can apply moving forward. Additionally, let me offer three pieces of advice I have given to almost everyone who has emailed, called, tweeted, and texted me.

1. “It’s all been done before.”

I am not sure if that quote reads as Ecclesiastical, as something from the singing group the Barenaked Ladies, or some combination of both. But the first thing teachers need to understand is that online and blended learning is not new. Online and blended K–12 learning got its start in the mid-1990s. It has enjoyed successes, failures, and every form of inquisition you could imagine.

So, why does that matter, and how exactly is that a tip? Well, imagine I asked you to build a birdhouse. If you had the impression that no one in the entire world had ever built a birdhouse before, you would be overwhelmed. However, what if I told you that people have been building birdhouses (with successes and failures) for years? What if I told you there were easily accessible plans and tools available to build great birdhouses? Would that make you feel better? I am guessing it would.

Many teachers and administrators were overwhelmed in the spring because they thought this had never been done before. I know that because, even though I have been studying the topic for 25 years, people still came up to me in the spring and said: “Hey Rick…did you hear about this new thing called K–12 online learning?”

Because K–12 online learning has been around for a long time, there are a plethora of resources available. There are state-led virtual schools, research journals, learning standards, and even conferences devoted solely to this topic. That means, as you can imagine, there are best practices out there. You are not starting from scratch. Just like you would go find a birdhouse blueprint, do not try to do this on your own. There are a lot of free resources out there, but I always point people to the latest Handbook of Research on K–12 Online and Blended Learning. It is online and it is a free download. You can easily read about best practices—and pitfalls—in planning your online instruction.

K-12 Online and Blended Learning book

Image from:
https://press.etc.cmu.edu/index.php/product/handbook-of-research-on-k-12-online-and-blended-learning/

2. “Native to what?”

I enjoy Marc Prensky’s writing. I particularly appreciate the work he has done promoting gaming in learning. Many of you may or may not know his name, but you’ve probably heard a term he is associated with: digital natives. Broadly speaking, a digital native is someone who grew up with the technology, compared to a digital immigrant who did not and is trying to adjust.

I get the argument. I have seen second grade students who can code better than my adult graduate students. But the problem is that people hear the term, and they assume it means something that it does not. Yes, a child might have their own phone, tablet, laptop, smartwatch, gaming console, and Twitter feed. They might post every day to TikTok or to Instagram. I guess you could call that being a digital native. But that does not mean they know how to use various technologies to learn. This also does not mean they will automatically be successful in an online learning environment. As a matter of fact, even if they can figure out the technology quicker, it does not mean they know how to apply that to their own teaching or learning environment. 

What does that mean practically for teachers? It means not assuming that your learner is native to their learning environment, regardless of their tech savviness. One of the qualities of successful teachers during the great, remote, online, COVID-19 teaching experiment of spring 2020 was a constant desire and ability to orient students. They did not assume students, at any level, knew how to be successful in online or blended environments.

Given the struggles teachers were facing, I joined with a group of colleagues in editing an open-access, free book for teachers and teacher educators. The book provides various ways in which teachers (and teacher educators) helped students. Some gave daily tips. Others led orientation meetings (often with parents involved) to show students how to be successful. And still others led Monday morning meetings to find out how everyone was doing or to give them tutorials about how to be successful in the learning environment. You can read all about these best practices for free.

Stories from the Field book

Image from: https://www.learntechlib.org/p/216903/

3. “Parents just don’t understand.”

I realize I am probably showing my age quoting something from Will Smith eons before he became the genie in Aladdin or an agent in the Men in Black movies. But it relates to my third point. A third success strategy for teachers in the spring was to recognize parents were being put into a situation they had never been in before. Think about for just a minute. Parents, not including those who homeschooled their children or whose children already attended virtual programs, had a very basic routine. They would drop their kids off at school or bus stop in the morning, and they would see them when they got home. They would get a few grunts here and there when asking their kids about their day. They would then get things home occasionally to post on the refrigerator. The big events were parent-teacher conferences, the always lovely concerts or programs, and then mailed or emailed report cards. I am obviously generalizing. But the point is that parents did not really see what was happening on a day-to-day, or minute-by-minute basis.

Now, fast forward to spring 2020. Most parents were home due to furloughs, layoffs, or simply working remotely. They saw their children a lot more than they had before; they had some degree of support in helping the child get online. Most parents I talked to were confused. How much help should they give their child? Are they supposed to be co-teaching with the teacher? What should they do when their child could not connect? What about when the child could not understand the assignment or the homework? 

Parents seemed to go off in two directions. Some were not involved at all. This could have been due to a lack of interest, the fact that they had jobs (and might be out of the home), or the fact that they believed it was up to the school system. Others were over-involved. They spent time co-teaching; some even co-attended the live or synchronous experiences with their children (and, no, I am not only referring to kindergarten students). Guess what happened? Students struggled in both cases. 

Dr. Erik Black has done significant research in this area. What he found was that when parents were not involved or over involved, students did worse. However, when parents took on a supportive, encouraging, and communicative role, students did significantly better.

Teachers who knew this spent time not only orienting their students, but also the parents. They set expectations and roles for parents. They gave advice about when and how to get involved and when not to. If that sounds aggressive, it is not. It is about setting positive boundaries. Think of it this way: if I were a parent that was over- or under-helping my child, the teacher would have limited ways of knowing my child’s needs. Conversely, if I helped the teacher understand what was happening, and helped encourage my child, the teacher would be enabled and empowered to best support the learner. What do they say about it taking a village to raise a child?

 

There may or may not be a vaccine for COVID-19 in our near future. Even if there is, we know that education will not and should not go back to the way it was.

It should draw on the successes of the technology-enhanced experiments of the spring. We also know that education is a complex environment. There is no single cure for teachers being successful in face-to-face, online, or blended environments. These three tips are a start, however, at the ways in which teachers can prepare themselves and their students for success this year and beyond.

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Richard E. Ferdig is the Summit Professor of Learning Technologies and Professor of Educational Technology at Kent State University. He works within the Research Center for Educational Technology and also the School of Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum Studies. He earned his Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Michigan State University. He has served as researcher and instructor at Michigan State University, the University of Florida, the Wyzsza Szkola Pedagogiczna (Krakow, Poland), and the Università degli studi di Modena e Reggio Emilia (Italy).

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