Evaluating distance learning

I was listening to a radio talk show from Scotland recently where teachers and parents were invited to call in with their views on distance learning. I was curious to compare my experience with those of teachers in my native land. Among the difficulties some communities have faced has been the slow or non-existent internet access. While living in Sweden, it is easy to forget how privileged I am in terms of accessing reliable, high-speed broadband internet. Indeed, Sweden compares favourably with other countries when it comes to digitalisation – only Finland ranks higher in terms of digital competitiveness in Europe. Consequently, having access to a digital device, reliable internet connection and adequate IT-skills do not pose significant problems for most teachers or students in Sweden. The concerns lie elsewhere.

During the initial weeks of distance learning, the Swedish Schools Inspectorate conducted interviews with around 50 school principals to help identify problem areas. The concerns identified were with the social aspect of school, subjects that have more practical elements, assessment in the absence of national tests, and an apparent lack of student motivation. 

These concerns were also raised in international studies. A survey of over 26 000 teachers noted a lack of engagement as the top concern and highlighted absence as an additional problem.

Local study

At my school in Stockholm, we noted an immediate improvement in attendance which was typical for schools in Sweden. Of course, as every teacher knows, attendance does not always mean that a student is truly present in the classroom. In an attempt at exploring these issues further, I surveyed the students and teachers at my school to evaluate their experience of distance learning. 

Attendance

The students were first asked to identify aspects of distance learning with which they were most satisfied. Many felt that they had more time to sleep and they were pleased they no longer had to spend time travelling to and from school or moving between classrooms. This could therefore account for the increased attendance as there were less barriers preventing students from coming to class. The novelty factor of online lessons cannot be discounted as a contributing factor too and the Swedish Schools Inspectorate’s study reported a drop in attendance over time.

Interaction

Motivation and engagement are problematic concepts. How do we measure engagement and what impact does this have on learning outcomes? Similarly, contrary to our best wishes, not all students will find all subjects motivating all of the time. Rather than using attendance as a proxy for measuring engagement, I looked at interaction. Students and teachers were asked how satisfied they were with interaction during distance learning. 

 

StudentSurvey_Interaction

While the majority of students expressed satisfaction with the interaction they had with their teachers, 16% expressed dissatisfaction. This figure however was much higher when students were asked about student-to-student interaction. Here 34% expressed dissatisfaction. 

The student experience was mirrored in the teachers’ responses and the issue of interaction was raised frequently in the open-ended questions. Here are two examples of typical student comments:

“The lack of interactions with others makes me less motivated.” 

“The lack of personal interacting definitely impacted my motivation and productivity.”

Conclusions

As we entered distance learning, our first concerns centred on the logistics of delivering lessons online. A lot of time and energy was expended on creating new material suitable for this new medium. While increased attendance can be viewed as a positive outcome of learning online, it is clear that as with the traditional classroom, not all those present were engaged in the process of learning.

The question brought into sharp focus with distance learning is then – how do we increase student interaction with the material and with each other? 

Increasing interaction 

At the end of term, our teachers came together to share their reflections on best practice during this most unusual term. Some of their ideas together with those of the students are as follows:

Entry and exit tickets – linked to attendance. At the start of each Google Meet lesson students are required to respond to a question in order to gain attendance. For example, students are invited to ask any questions they still have from the previous lesson or concerning the homework. This sets a requirement for participation from the start of class and can help inform the teacher of the needs of the class. An exit ticket checking for understanding on the lesson material can be combined with this approach.

Low stakes quizzes to check for understanding. Google forms can be used to facilitate short multiple choice quizzes which can provide the teacher with important information on their students. These can be completed during a lesson with the results monitored live by the teacher.

Breakout room discussions. Google Meet allows for students to work in smaller groups where discussion is more natural. Teachers can provide opportunities during lessons for students to break off from the main Google Meet to discuss a topic. The teacher can easily monitor and even record these discussions to ensure everyone stays on point.

Discussion forums. Each Google Meet has a chat function where students can interact with the class by typing their responses. This can be used as a forum for discussion where everyone’s voice is heard. A transcript of the chat can be downloaded at the end of the lesson. Usually a reminder of this can help stimulate discussion.

“Cameras On”. It is natural for the teacher to require all microphones and cameras to be switched off at the start of a lesson to ensure that there are no distractions, however this can quickly become a habit and a number of students commented that they are more motivated to participate online if they are ‘forced’ to have their cameras switched on. This can also go a small way to alleviating the concern regarding a lack of social interaction.

The questions we ask ourselves in the traditional classroom have been brought into sharper focus during this period of distance learning.

 

On the subject of remote learning, The Research Schools Network notes, “Quality lessons are irrelevant if students are not accessing them.” Not having access to a digital device or only being able to use a small screen may prevent a student from experiencing the lesson in the way the teacher intended. However, as we have seen, in the context of Sweden, and my school in particular, this thankfully does not appear to present a significant barrier to learning. Rather, the reason students may not be accessing a quality lesson is due to a lack of active participation. In a remote environment, it is simply too easy for some students to turn on and tune out. As teachers we should therefore design our lessons in ways that require and offer opportunities for student participation. The questions we ask ourselves in the traditional classroom have been brought into sharper focus during this period of distance learning:

  • Are all my students participating in lessons – how do I know? What data am I collecting?
  • Are my students doing the work I assign? Are they completing and turning in tasks?
  • What systems do I have in place to track engagement and progress?
  • What interventions does my school have for the disengaged?

 

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