Possibilities Amid Pandemic: Mapping Interactions for Remote Learning

I do not recall ever before considering terms such as curriculum, pedagogy, and pandemic all at once. Yet here we are facing an uncomfortable reality: school closures and shifts to remote learning. The conditions are forcing schools to rapidly create plans to make learning possible even when no one is in the school building. As the activity on technology listservs spikes and the edtech world dives ever deeper into relevant questions, every educator and administrator outside of those conversations deserves support that cuts to the heart of understanding possibilities and determining priorities.
Educators and administrators for whom remote learning sounds daunting need support and to understand the digital tools available. Current guidance advocates for specific online content resources or tools, but every educator needs a framework to help determine if and how those sources and digital tools could benefit their work. I have been closely following the blended and online learning fields over the past seven years, previously as the coordinator of a blended learning program and currently as both a head of school and an advanced doctoral candidate engaged in blended learning research. Across those experiences, I specifically looked to reconcile the affordances and challenges of digital tools and approaches with learners’ personal profiles. I’ve come to know firsthand that it’s important to explore what’s out there and take a breath before you dive in—even amid a pandemic.
The historical norm for the majority of K–12 students, faculty, and staff has been working synchronously and face-to-face in a brick-and-mortar school. As a complementary piece within that norm, homework is a time when asynchronous work takes place (i.e., separately at different times). Both interactions are possible in a remote setup, but success will hinge on the decisions about when and how to use them. 

Mapping Interaction Possibilities

Quality teaching conversations often—and should—involve differentiation, individualization, and personalization. At this time, however, tailoring curriculum and instruction remains a good thought, but it cannot be the first thought. Instead, set it aside and return to it once you have a firm sense of the forms of interaction possible for you and your students. 
Schools not already regularly facilitating remote learning should immediately conduct an abbreviated needs assessment: What will we want to achieve, and what is our capacity to achieve it? This is not the time to ask about the best program or platform for online learning, and it is not the time to seek out apps and learning games that often make great claims about student engagement. Instead, ask:
  • What will we (as a class, as a school) consider valid forms of school-based learning regardless of physical setting?
  • What are the core learning priorities for our school? For my class?
  • When it comes to interactions with content and interactions among people, what forms are comfortable for me? What forms would be effective for my students?
  • Of those forms of interaction that are comfortable for my students and me, what forms of interaction would serve the core learning priorities?
  • Will this vary from student to student, and am I prepared to facilitate that variety?
Having shifted to a remote setup, it is time to consider two forms of interaction: interaction with content and interaction with people. Below is a sample mapping of the most likely person-to-content interactions (Fig. 1) and person-to-person interactions (Fig. 2).
Fig. 1 Person-to-Content Interactions

Source: Chris Ongaro  

Intentional learning requires thought about the content on which we (students and educators) will focus. The content will—and should—vary, informed by external standards and policies, as well as by the contextual realities of a local school and classroom’s abilities, needs, cultures, and interests. No matter what the content to be addressed, though, it will exist in some form. Consider the following breakdown to assess your own options:
  • Hard copy: Could things be sent home on the last day everyone is together? What could or should students take with them from school to home? Could students print at home?
  • Digital copy: Depending on the duration of a building close, the readiness prior to close, and other factors, digital copies of content will likely become essential for any remote learning setup. Sending an email with or without attachments, accessing online texts, viewing websites, and online videos are all common forms of digital content. 
  • Text- or image-based: Schools already operate with text-centric or image-based approaches (think secondary source for history, written explanation and models for math, or collection of organism images for biology). Without daily face-to-face interactions, it will be important to keep in mind the extent to which content is text-based.
  • Audio and/or video: Digital content can extend to things like a teacher recording a lecture and then sharing that video with students. Administrators may also want to record messages to the community and provide that content beyond class work.
Content does not act on its own. Some person-to-person interactions do not warrant explanation, but some other staples of the online school world deserve extra attention. Consider the ways in which person-to-person interactions could play out for your setup.
Fig. 2 Person-to-Person (P2P) Interactions

Source: Chris Ongaro  
  • Text chat: Are you a Google school? Hangouts Chat will support synchronous text chat for which you will also have a record. Without Google features, consider the platforms with which your school is equipped and determine if it supports text chat in a way that maintains alignment with your policies and expectations.
  • Virtual whiteboard: If you have access to this type of feature, you will be able to share a screen or slide that includes prepared content and that can also support the co-creation of new content.
  • Live audio or live audio-video: A school may consider talking directly with a student or class through audio alone or with live video. If your school is not currently set up with Google Hangouts or Zoom, you may want to see the ways in which tech companies are now offering to support these types of interactions.
  • Recorded audio and/or video: Imagine teachers recording their modeling of algebra problems and then posting those videos to Google Classroom.  Similarly, a literature teacher might ask students to record themselves reading a poem aloud and then post those videos to a class page.
  • Social media: Does your school and/or class have social media accounts? If not, would it be allowed? Creating a class account designated for the remote learning period would be an easy way to promote people-to-people interactions, support varied forms of student contributions (text, web links, etc.), and compile those interactions as student data for assessment.
  • Shared digital document: Access to Google Docs can help interactions such as the editing and commenting on a common document. Classes also could mimic this format through email chains. In either case, think through a process and norms for co-creating content that will work for your specific class.

Acceptance, Faith, and Flexibility

By and large, current brick-and-mortar educators did not prepare for such a scenario in whatever teacher preparation route they followed. For now, each educator—teachers and administrators alike—will be best served by accepting that the jump into full-scale remote learning will involve the unpredictable and the uncomfortable. We cannot rapidly change that, so we should turn our gaze to what is within our control.
This is not a time for scripted lessons and rigid implementation. This is a time to focus on our core learning priorities, to be intentional in how we set up students to pursue such learning, and—of equal importance—to be flexible in our expectations and in our learning paths. It is a tremendous disruption to each school’s reality, and it poses a tremendous ask to all involved. I strongly encourage all educators to take a step back, map the available content forms and means of interaction, and then use those maps as a basis for all decisions of curriculum and instruction. 
We all will be well-served by a faith in students’ ability and interest in learning. Student engagement in normal conditions is not a given, and the shift in these strange times will make it, at least, unpredictable. If we choose to embrace and display a faith in our students’ interest in continued learning, then we will give all involved another reason to believe that our schools can and will succeed as sustained learning communities.
Chris Ongaro
Chris Ongaro

Chris Ongaro is head of school at Robert Louis Stevenson School in New York, New York, and he is a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University, focused on blended learning and personalization.


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