Teachers, Live Screen Time Is Precious. Use It Well


—Earl Manus/iStock

Research suggests a way to restructure remote learning to give students what they’ve been missing


H. Alix Gallagher & Benjamin Cottingham

Wanted for the new school year: high-quality remote-learning experiences to engage and benefit all students.

In the current pandemic reality, educators can improve learning, we believe, by finding better ways to use and structure students’ work time. That’s true whether learning is fully remote via computers, phones, or packets or whether it includes in-person instruction.

When in-person schooling ended abruptly this spring, the learning opportunities then available to students varied enormously. Some students received no distance instruction, and others got a hodgepodge of a synchronous virtual classroom, asynchronous online activities, and worksheets and packets. Educators scrambled to keep a semblance of school going till normal returned.

But now, with many locations choosing to open the year either fully virtual or in a hybrid of in-person groups and remote teaching, educators must tackle how to help children learn, and learn effectively, in those formats. And while access to devices and the internet is important, data on student engagement in online learning last spring from several large districts showed technology access alone is insufficient for providing quality distance learning. Equally important is reconceptualizing teaching and learning for the current situations.

“Students, like adults, are vulnerable to ‘Zoom gloom’—attention fatigue from interpreting social cues through live video for prolonged periods.”

As part of our work at Policy Analysis for California Education at Stanford University, we have been reviewing research that can help guide districts as they think about this fall. We started from the premise, based in research, that whether in person or remotely, effective instruction provides students a mix of expository, active, and interactive learning opportunities. That is, students are presented new knowledge or skills (the expository opportunity), students practice them (the active opportunity), and then students engage with teachers and peers around the new knowledge and skills (the interactive opportunity).

Conceptualizing how to provide students expository and active instruction is relatively simple in the current context because these activities can be done by students independently. Interactive learning, on the other hand, will require more intensive planning from teachers and school leaders. The work is worth it, though: Interactive learning is central in many pedagogies, ranging from the ancient Socratic method to more recently developed inquiry-oriented pedagogies. We believe that plans for remote teaching should prioritize sufficient interactive learning opportunities.

The best evidence for how to sequence expository, active, and interactive learning—and how to make the most use of the limited synchronous time in virtual classrooms—comes from the flipped-classroom model, which has shown small positive effects on student outcomes over 100 studies. Flipped classrooms first present students with new information asynchronously (by textbook or video, for example) and then require students to complete activities that help them process the basic information and practice new skills independently (via comprehension questions or practice problems, among other means).

This essay is the 13th in a series that aims to put the pieces of research together so that education decisionmakers can evaluate which policies and practices to implement.

The conveners of this project—Susanna Loeb, the director of Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, and Harvard education professor Heather Hill—have received grant support from the Annenberg Institute for this series.

To suggest other topics for this series or join in the conversation, use #EdResearchtoPractice on Twitter.

Read the full series here.

These activities should also provide the teacher with feedback to diagnose student misconceptions and tailor the limited synchronous time to meet student needs. Students then come to class (in person or by video/phone conference), where the teacher might begin with a mini-lesson to address common misunderstandings. Then the majority of class time is spent in interactive learning—for example, discussions of content or group projects—in which students build a deeper understanding than they could be expected to achieve on their own.

Structuring synchronous instructional time around interactive learning is also a promising strategy because the social and academic components of learning are intertwined. Students learn many socioemotional skills such as relationship-building and self-management at school, and overall they learn better—academically and socioemotionally—when they have strong school relationships with adults and peers.

Unfortunately, many students lost these interactions in the sudden shift to distance learning last spring. That makes it all the more critical to provide plenty of interactive learning now. We think it will boost such learning to create smaller groups of students for some portion of school time via “breakout rooms” or by using more standard group projects. Also promising is using all available adults—including paraprofessionals—for synchronous instruction to lower online-class sizes. Common sense suggests that smaller groups and lower student-adult ratios can help increase interactive opportunities. And some research indicates that cooperative learning, when structured around group goals and individual student accountability for working toward those goals, can improve learning.

Another critical step in rethinking the use of instructional time is recognizing that students, like adults, are vulnerable to “Zoom gloom“—attention fatigue from interpreting social cues through live video for prolonged periods. Students should not be expected to watch hours of teacher-directed lessons. This is especially true for younger students, who have relatively little capacity to remain engaged in passive distance-learning activities. Younger students benefit from learning through games, shorter chunks of instruction, and opportunities to use manipulatives or routines from daily life.

Teachers can use online-learning tools but also physical materials sent home (such as books and math manipulatives) to provide students and families with a variety of options for asynchronous learning. These ideas can be modified to meet the developmental stages of older learners, who have longer attention spans and can become deeply engaged in activities that are not designed as play.

Leaders must think, too, about the new demands that remote learning places on families and caregivers. Schools need to develop systematic ways to monitor student engagement, following-up with unengaged students and seeking family feedback on how distance learning is going. Teachers need to clearly and consistently communicate their expectations to families, as well as respectfully teach parents what they need to know to support their children, whether that’s navigating learning-management systems or finding math problems in everyday activities.

Finally, we urge educational leaders to recognize that two things held true last spring: Many teachers worked harder than they’ve ever worked before, and many families were unhappy with the quality of education schools provided.

To fix that, teachers will need lots of help. Schools and districts must support teachers with planning time and professional development, including good models of remote instruction. Districts and states must provide clear pedagogical guidance along with curated collections of high-quality resources.

The new prototypes will be far from perfect, but by modifying wisely, trying, and revising, educators really can get more of the high-quality learning they are aiming for.

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