5 Lessons From the First Weeks of Virtual Learning (Part 1)


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Schools across the country have started school already. Many of those schools have started with 100% virtual learning. Parents, students, and teachers spent the summer thinking about what virtual learning would look like. A lot of them worried that it would be a complete failure. The reality of virtual learning is that it is difficult, but it can be successful.

Parents are in a pivotal position during virtual learning. They see their student day-in and day-out learning at home. Parents see their struggles and successes. They have crucial feedback. Parents can provide schools with the missing links to build positive remote learning structures.

With our first few weeks of “back to school” Pulse Checks™ completed at Possip, we see the feedback parents have. We wanted to share our findings to empower schools and districts that aren’t in session yet to get ahead of these problems, appreciate parents for their great ideas and feedback, and show the value of a feedback and Pulse Check™ system like Possip during at-home learning. 

Here are the virtual learning parent feedback trends:

1. The right amount of time in virtual learning is a fine balance

Goldilocks has a lot in common with synchronous and asynchronous learning time. That is to say finding the “just right” size of it isn’t easy. The challenge is some parents and students want more time, some want less of it.  While there isn’t necessarily a “right answer” there is some helpful guidance. Schools are going to want to be ready to test the pendulum swing a bit on how much or how little synchronous and asynchronous learning to offer.  Parents of course do best when schools and districts can be transparent about the plan – even if the plan is to test and change based on feedback.

Synchronous Learning 

We recommend start digestible – and add on.  This would mean start with at least 2 hours (up to 4 hours) of synchronous, live learning time.  Make sure you are building in 10-20 minute breaks between live courses, and aim to make courses no longer than 1 hour at a time. 

We tend to hear from parents being frustrated if there is too little time (under 2 hours) or too much time (over 4 hours) of synchronous (aka “live”) learning time.

In addition to how much time is being spent in synchronous learning, of course, the quality of time matters too.  Are students getting to engage with their peers on academic content?  Getting to learn from a teacher directly?  Are they getting direct engagement with the teacher?

Age also matters a ton.  Sadly, it is just really hard to make virtual learning work great for kindergarteners and pre-schoolers.  While we are starting to see schools and districts learn and succeed through trial and error, transparently there aren’t a ton of wins to chalk up yet.  Conversely, we have seen in middle schools and high schools some parents whose kids love virtual learning so much, they may choose to continue virtual learning in the future.

There has also been a high variance in how this works for students with IEPs (individualized education plans).  Some families have found success during virtual learning, while a lot have still not.  We say this to encourage schools and districts to doubly invest in spending time reaching and connecting to families with diverse learning needs – whether with IEPs or English Language Learners or other additional information or insight you might have.

One additional quick note! We are finding that families and staff can often collectively have the same shared information, just different perspectives.

Think of virtual learning as a pyramid.  There are lots of people involved – parents, teachers, students, even siblings!  Each one can see one part of dimension – so you have to bring all those perspectives together to have a full picture!

Asynchronous Learning

 Parents have given a lot of feedback on the amount of homework (aka asynchronous learning) students have. Some families in certain schools say it’s too much and students are overwhelmed.  Some say it’s too little where students are not engaged in enough learning.  To be fair, this isn’t so different from homework feedback in a typical year.  Some parents say there is too much, others say there is too little. The difference is 2020 pandemic life school is new.  And everyone struggles to know what is normal or not normal – what to attribute to the remote learning or pandemic part of life, versus what is just normal life.  So we definitely encourage schools and districts to keep your ear to the street in terms of workload. 

A few recommendations:

  • Have options!  Since some parents and students want more, and some want less, offer a baseline amount of homework that is manageable for anyone.  Then give the option for more.
  • Offer “offline” options for asynchronous learning.  Some of the challenge parents have is the sheer quantity of screen time.  So potentially giving students a 20-minute book reading charge, or a fast facts practice or even a nature walk exploration.  The idea is to just remember that homework or asynchronous time doesn’t need to involve a screen.
  • Make it clear what is due – and what is not. Some of the stress parents articulate is just the chaos of not knowing.  Is something enrichment or is it due?  If it’s due, when is it due?  Some of the stress of logistics can get in the way of the activity.

Some of the challenges schools will have are the same challenges that come forward every year.  That is to say, don’t be discouraged.  A normal school year has imperfection too.  It is more important than ever to be able to listen and adjust.  That’s the good news!  None of us have taught or learned in a pandemic before so no one expects perfection!

2. Parents want to know about their student’s attendance and progress

Parents want to hear how their child is doing during virtual learning and if they are attending virtual classes, especially if parents work from outside of the house. It is important to find a way to keep parents updated on attendance and their child’s academic progress during this time. 

This is especially tricky because taking daily attendance can be hard enough for schools, but then figuring out how to communicate back to parents if their child is there or not.  This may be when giving parents their own tools to support information gathering can help.  Some tips for parents include:

  • have your child take a picture or screenshot on their computer of them on their classroom (shift+print screen)
  • have a set time with your child where it is their duty to come to you and show you what they did that day (trust us, we know, easier said than done)
  • identify one person or teacher your child will see and ask them to text you if they notice your child isn’t there.

Some tips for schools include:

  • have a clear system for attendance and follow up (who is taking attendance?  Who can make phone calls or texts to check in with parents and families if students aren’t there?)
  • create a fun system like having a daily question students will send the answer to their family member via email or text, or just write on paper for when their parent is home.

3. Parents are Navigating Technology and Other Needs

Schools and districts did a great job of getting out tens of thousands of devices to families.  There are still families with technology needs – so it’s great to have a system to surface that.  The technological undertaking that districts and schools undertook is to be admired and celebrated.  And still, there are and will be a LOT of questions about tech issues, needing laptops, asking for passwords to platforms, hotspot needs, tech training needs, and wanting ideas on how to leverage technology to better meet at-home learning needs. 

In addition to technology, parents and families still have questions and needs about where to pick up meals, how to access financial support if needed.  So much great work has gone into communicating out to families it can be hard to remember there are still lots of ways for information to fall through the cracks.  Fortunately, giving families a way to ask their questions helps you better identify their needs.

4. Parents Want Help Motivating Their Child

Parents and caregivers have to see the face of their child who may get overwhelmed in the middle of a Zoom, Teams, or Hangouts session and turn off their video and cry.  They see the child who moves slowly to start their morning.  They know when their child is disengaged and unmotivated.  Seeing it and feeling powerless is tough. 

Parents are looking to educators for tips and tricks on how to motivate their child during at-home learning.  Since so much socialization typically happens at schools, parents may not realize the role they might need to play in helping their student socialize.  That may be setting up play dates, giving their kid the courage to invite the kid a few doors down to play, or something else altogether.  Parents may need some help from educators in their lives to know how to best motivate their children.

Providing parent training on student motivation and engagement in virtual learning is a great way to set parents up for success in this area. Possip provides parent training like this. Reach out to amanda@possip.com if you’re interested in hearing more. 

5. Resist the Urge to D-T-M!

One of our team members has a saying in their house – D-T-M (doing too much).  It’s a short hand acronym to help calm over hyper kids or just get someone (parent or child) who is doing a little too much to calm it down. 

Schools and districts want to caution against the danger of D-T-M.  What are some examples of D-T-M?

  • Assuming that more zoom or live video hours means better
  • Giving more homework or assignments as better
  • Being overly strict with expectations of student’s dress, location, etc.
  • Making schedules more complicated than they need to be
  • Having multiple platforms and places for information

Parents and students appreciate simplicity.  Life is complicated enough – so resist the urge to D-T-M (do too much). 

Watch out Thursday for our part 2 in this series where we share a bit more about lessons learned from back to school.

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