3 tips for a better student online learning experience

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Mar 17, 2020

As of late Sunday, March 15th, at least 32.5 million public school students attending at least 64,000 schools have seen their education interrupted; and more than 200 colleges and universities are canceling or postponing in-person classes and activities as COVID-19 enters pandemic territory. The best option to try and continue student learning, it seems, is to move everything online.

Outside of the practical and difficult challenges of switching from brick-and-mortar operations to fully virtual ones—mad-dash technical setups, student access to broadband and computers, and student hardware and software accessibility—ensuring that students still have access to the best possible education is also a considerable hurdle for schools and universities.

Based on research conducted for more than a decade on what works and why with students’ online learning experiences, here are some tips and advice for institutions looking to not only get all students online as quickly and seamlessly as possible, but also provide meaningful, targeted lessons and classes that don’t stymie student achievement or engagement (Note: Because of major resource and planning constraints, we recognize that these suggestions will not be possible for all schools to implement. However, we see value in the consideration of these tips as schools and colleges continue iterating on their online learning best practices):

1. Don’t try to replicate classroom instruction online

For online learning to truly be effective, students must be engaged and participate in active learning. In the words of my colleague Michael B. Horn, schools shouldn’t “just take subpar brick-and-mortar experiences and move them online where they will be even worse, but instead, transcend the traditional lecture model to leverage technology and fundamentally transform the learning experience into one in which all students have a much greater likelihood of success.” 

To ensure students stay engaged at home, online learning should shift at least some control over learning from teachers to students. In other words, online learning should not mean replicating the entire school day schedule via video conferencing. Instead, good adaptive learning technologies (such as Khan Academy, Zern, Newsela, and Lexia), online course options (such as ASU Prep Digital, Edgenuity, and Fuel Education), or district-created online materials should be used to give students and families some control over how they structure their learning time.

2. Help students own their learning

 With the shift to virtual learning, good teaching becomes more about checking in with students to coach them on self-directed learning activities and provide targeted interventions than about covering content via video lecture. Fortunately, digital tools can also provide daily data on each and every students’ activity and progress, allowing teachers and students to have focused discussions on the whys and hows of learning. “The most telling thing about digital learning is when students can tell you what they are learning, where they are on their learning path, and where they are going next with their learning,” says Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D., senior director of the Professional Learning & Leading Collaborative at The Friday Institute. She explains that the best digital learning experience helps students describe goals and standards, as well as have access to their own learning data. “Digital learning makes personalized learning for every student, every day possible through rich content, simulations, collaboration tools, and production opportunities. Students use technology much like we do at work, as a tool that can help them achieve their learning goals.” As students become engaged with online content, Wolf notes that in her experience they become very comfortable asking others or their teachers for support.

3. Facilitate connection, not isolation

Implemented poorly, online learning could feel like an isolating experience for students thanks to limited opportunities to connect to classmates or the outside world. But beyond our education systems, communications technologies have advanced in ways that radically improve our ability to connect across time and space. And now, a new frontier of edtech tools is opening up to connect students online to industry professionals, peers, supports, and the community. 

My colleague, Julia Freeland Fisher, has been documenting these tools as part of her research on the impact of students’ access to networks and connections toward improving their chances of getting by and getting ahead in school and in life. This collection of edtech tools, called a Market Map, includes everything from those that facilitate brief, one-off online connections with industry experts who could share their career trajectories with students, to those that broker new, enduring mentoring relationships to support students into or through college. Bringing additional supports, real-world expertise, and increased guidance are all fundamentally human endeavors, and thanks to this new frontier of edtech that connects, webs of connections that diversify young people’s networks are increasingly within reach.

Though scary and unpredictable, this time of relying on online learning to deliver good educational experiences for students amidst the COVID-19 pandemic could be a learning opportunity for schools and colleges to test what works best for student-centered learning and develop best practices around online learning, blended learning, and personalized learning. 

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Christensen Institute. His work focuses on identifying strategies to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education through Disruptive Innovation. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.