The Real Reason It Is So Difficult To Plan For Online Learning

My colleague and I looked at each other on Tuesday of last week. She had a look in her eyes of pure exhaustion. I could sense a call for help, but I think we were both too tired to send out an SOS.

I let out a deep sigh and said, “Wow, is it June yet!”

The past few weeks had been a whirlwind of non-stop problem finding and problem-solving. It was good work, but tiring work.

As the Head of Learning and Growth, learning consultant with a number of districts around the county, and an online course facilitator for Penn Literacy Network, I got to live out the highs and lows of another school year. However, unlike any other school year I’ve been a part of this one looked completely different as a teacher, learner, and parent:

  • Completely overhauling our education system to emergency remote teaching and learning in less than a week’s time
  • Developing project-based performance tasks to replace traditional assessments. Also an unreal experience!
  • Working from home with my four school-aged kids (my wife also currently pregnant with our fifth child) and trying to help them with their online learning experience
  • Trying to navigate all of this in the midst of a true global pandemic, anxious about our family, friends and colleagues health as COVID-19 spread in our area

The list could go on, but in working with our own school and talking with teachers around the country (and the world in our webinars) I quickly found out that this sense of exhaustion was not only me.

There was a general excitement around the work we are doing this school year, yet every teacher I spoke to felt a bit tired after a full semester with students in online classrooms.

One veteran teacher who has led the move to project-based learning and authentic assessment during online learning said to me, “I keep thinking things might get back to the way they were before the pandemic. But, it doesn’t look like that will happen. I guess I’m hoping for the wrong thing. Instead, I just wish things would get better for our kids. Even though we are online, they are having new experiences with project-based learning we could never have offered 5, 10, 15 years ago. It’s not easy for us, but it’s the right thing to do.”

That last line stopped me cold. In the midst of the craziness during the past few months, I was often focused on the wrong things, worried about logistics and plans, and everything else.

We are here for the kids. Whether that is in-person, online, or in some type of blended back-and-forth situation. Their learning experience is what matters.

The rest of the day I spent zooming asking teachers, administrators, and kids all the same thing: How’s it going? How can I help? What is working? What can we do better?

Emergency Remote Learning vs Online Learning

In a matter of days, teachers and school leaders had to take curriculum, resources, assessments, and lessons that were designed for an in-person (or at least blended) experience (and without any sustained training), turned it into a remote learning experience.

This is hard work, but it is the only option.

On top of this process, educators are dealing with their own families, friends, and loved ones. Those they may be in quarantine with, and those that they may be worried about during this pandemic.

The families of students we are working with are also facing uncertainty, anxiety, and medical concerns during this pandemic.

That is why this is not only “remote” learning, but “emergency remote learning”.

I was reminded of this (and my failure to acknowledge the difference) while reading this article: “The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning.”

I immediately read that article with fresh eyes about the experience. The following paragraphs put it all into perspective for me as an educator and dad of four kids:

Moving instruction online can enable the flexibility of teaching and learning anywhere, anytime, but the speed with which this move to online instruction is expected to happen is unprecedented and staggering. Although campus support personnel and teams are usually available to help faculty members learn about and implement online learning, these teams typically support a small pool of faculty interested in teaching online. In the present situation, these individuals and teams will not be able to offer the same level of support to all faculty in such a narrow preparation window. Faculty might feel like instructional MacGyvers, having to improvise quick solutions in less-than-ideal circumstances. No matter how clever a solution might be—and some very clever solutions are emerging—many instructors will understandably find this process stressful.

The temptation to compare online learning to face-to-face instruction in these circumstances will be great…

Online learning carries a stigma of being lower quality than face-to-face learning, despite research showing otherwise. These hurried moves online by so many institutions at once could seal the perception of online learning as a weak option, when in truth nobody making the transition to online teaching under these circumstances will truly be designing to take full advantage of the affordances and possibilities of the online format.

Researchers in educational technology, specifically in the subdiscipline of online and distance learning, have carefully defined terms over the years to distinguish between the highly variable design solutions that have been developed and implemented: distance learning, distributed learning, blended learning, online learning, mobile learning, and others. Yet an understanding of the important differences has mostly not diffused beyond the insular world of educational technology and instructional design researchers and professionals. Here, we want to offer an important discussion around the terminology and formally propose a specific term for the type of instruction being delivered in these pressing circumstances: emergency remote teaching.

I was happy to see the distinction and begin to use the term “emergency remote teaching”.

Yes, what we have been doing the past few months has components of online learning.

It definitely is from a distance.

It is drawing upon the use of virtual learning tools and resources.

But, it is not the same as online learning as we know it.

Online learning is planned. Online learning experiences are developed and designed with the same care and time that we have put into crafting our in-person learning experiences over the years. Online learning is a lot of work, but it can support our learners in many of the ways that our in-person experiences.

Continued from the aforementioned article:

Online education, including online teaching and learning, has been studied for decades. Numerous research studies, theories, models, standards, and evaluation criteria focus on quality online learning, online teaching, and online course design. What we know from research is that effective online learning results from careful instructional design and planning, using a systematic model for design and development.7 The design process and the careful consideration of different design decisions have an impact on the quality of the instruction. And it is this careful design process that will be absent in most cases in these emergency shifts.

Now, as we look forward to a new school year, we face the uncertainty of what school will look like, but we know there will be a need for online learning for some (if not all) students, and some (if not all) of the school year.

Planning For Next School Year

I completed my Master’s in Global and International Education in an online/distance learning cohort at Drexel University.

The program was planned that way, it was designed that way, and I (as a student) knew what I was signing up for.

It was still difficult to do, even as an adult who had access to all the appropriate technology and resources.

I teach online courses for the University of Pennsylvania GSE Penn Literacy Network. It still isn’t perfect and we have issues with each cohort, even after having taught this course online since 2016. I’m still making mistakes as an instructor who has planned for, tweaked, iterated, and constantly improved an online course for multiple years!

So, no, this isn’t easy, even when everything is planned and prepared for in advance.

They take time to develop. They take time to plan. They take hours to put together and work through the kinks and variations.

We know online and blended learning can engage our students, empower them to do authentic work, and ultimately lead to deeper understanding and knowledge. But there is so much to unpack. So many circumstances to plan for.

Yet, in so many situations we don’t have enough time to plan as much as we’d like.

This is the reality of online teaching and learning.

And the easy thing would be to replicate the traditional methods of teaching with online asynchronous stand and deliver videos, synchronous whole group instruction, and one-size-fits-all assessments.

But, it’s 2020, and most teachers I see working around my own kids’ school, this country, and the world, aren’t teaching like that anymore.

It’s why we are exhausted. It’s why school leaders are overwhelmed by supporting this type of teaching and learning. It’s why parents are wondering how to help their kids because the answers to their projects aren’t in the back of the book. It’s also why I’m being uplifted more and more when we share our stories of frustration, desperation, and exhaustion.

These stories of online authentic learning, project-based learning, real-world assessments, and creative work are also the stories of teachers and leaders who have said, ‘I’m not going to take the easy path. I’m going to take the right path.”

Yes, online teaching is tiring. Yes, leading the work to prepare for the next school year is overwhelming.

But, wow, it is worth it.

When we innovate in our classrooms and schools we shouldn’t expect it to make life easier. Instead, we should expect it to make the learning experience better for our kids. That’s the goal.

I don’t know about you, but I’m heading into our summer planning, a bit frustrated, a bit tired from the stress of working through problem after problem.

Yet, I’m heading into this school year fired up because all of this work, frustration, and exhaustion is going to make it new and better for our learners.

And to me, that’s a win.

Do you know what makes it even better? When we share these stories of exhaustion (and triumphs) together. Make sure you are talking about the realities of teaching and leading in 2020 with your colleagues. And please share in the comments below!

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