Remote Learning: What is It and How Effective Can It Be?

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At this point in 2020, the term remote learning might be more ubiquitous than oxygen. When COVID-19 spread across the globe, schools faced a Shakespearean-like decision: To close, or not to close – that was the question.

Luckily, the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff members prevailed in most places. Schools closed their doors on in-person learning and worked overtime to implement online curriculums. In effect, remote learning seized hold of the gigantic educational wheel and careened left.

Cut to now: a world of pandemic pods, micro-school education models, and Zoom-based learning sessions. Total remote learning might not be permanent (in fact, sidelined schools are desperately looking for ways to return to the classroom or, at the very least, institute a hybrid model of in-person/distance instruction as we continue to combat COVID-19), but it’s certainly a way of teaching that will, in some form or another, remain in our future pedagogical zeitgeist.

Let’s take a look at what remote learning is, and how it’s being implemented. 

What is Remote Learning?

girl writing in notebook while learning on her laptop

In the past, you’ve probably heard mention of distance learning. Same thing. There’s no subtext or hidden meaning to the term – remote learning allows for learners to access online instruction and/or materials in lieu of in-person attendance. 

As we mentioned, a large number of primary and secondary schools still operate remotely because of the coronavirus. Shifting to online modes of learning required lightning-fast adaptations by school districts, administrators and, most importantly, teachers and students. The result has been, well, a ton of stress.

Parents had to assume the role of secondary educators due to the limitations of learning at a distance (more on these limitations later). Teacher burnout seeps through the [digital] hallways of schools like a toxic gas. Double this burnout for students, who find themselves in the throngs of childhood and adolescent development during one of the most disastrous time periods of modern society.  

This isn’t to say remote learning can’t be effective. It has its benefits; however, there are plenty of arguments and evidence to suggest that its disadvantages far outweigh any positive gains.   

The Benefits & Disadvantages

pensive boy with marker in mouth next to pros and cons chart

We’re going to focus only on the good and bad of remote learning in primary and secondary education. While the practice is often implemented effectively within companies and organizations, remote learning for adults and children functions differently.

Benefit: Flexibility

Flexibility is a big benefit, for students and teachers. No commute, no hallway transition times, less [tangible] disruptions, and more creative wiggle room for teachers. This environment is largely new for everyone; teachers who once found themselves victims to stringent district curriculum mandates and/or overwhelming administrative demands might have a bit more clout in the digital classroom. We’re too early in the remote learning game to know exactly what works, and the only way we’ll learn is from those doing it every day: the teachers!

Benefit: Pacing

We’ve all been subjected at some point in life (either as student or teacher) to the time constraints of a traditional school day and, on a micro-level, a traditional class period. It seems like block scheduling is not a favored option anymore, with the majority of schools following a 7, 8, or even 9-period day. Those classes? Anywhere from 40-55 minutes, nowhere near enough time to get everything done!

Remote learning gives teachers better opportunities to provide lessons, activities, and homework assignments that let students work at their own pace. Sure, there’s bound to be lessons where students need to be in “attendance” (see: in front of their computer screens), but the digital format paves the way for student-driven pacing.  

Disadvantage: Inequity

Educational inequity reigned before the coronavirus. Since, it’s only been exasperated. No – it’s not okay for us to assume that everyone has equal access to technology and/or the internet. And considering remote learning necessitates internet usage, it’s shined a spotlight on the severe inadequacies still prevalent within education. How are students supposed (and be expected) to learn without the means of doing so?

Disadvantage: Lack of socialization

Socialization is a healthy part of childhood and adolescent development, and virtual learning cannot replace this. The simple fact is that many kids have suffered from having to complete coursework online. Technological deficiencies aside, students benefit from social settings. 

These settings also prove indicative of the world students will eventually enter – a global workforce where communication skills are of the essence. School leaders, teachers, and parents worry that the COVID-induced remote learning is having negative effects on children and teenagers developing proper communicative abilities, as well as building their own personal relationships. 

Disadvantage: All work and no play

We’re not saying that students have devolved into their best impressions of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining this school year, but the ability to learn at one’s own pace and “whenever” has its downside.

Just ask teachers.

Already overworked, teachers now feel the added pressure to be available at all times of the day. Students (young ones, especially) who are accustomed to rigid schedules and procedures established in school now face a completely different realm. Granted, parents have helped with this, but they also have jobs to worry about, many of which are currently remote. 

Cue: All work and no play.

Disadvantage: Disconnected learning

Technology in the classroom can be a strong, multi-faceted resource. However, no matter what, tech can’t replace the personal nature of traditional teaching and learning. The highs, the lows, those simple celebratory moments between teachers and students – they’re limited, severely, by remote learning. 

Is ‘Online Learning’ the Same Thing?

person watching lady teach through laptop

This is tricky because, as we’ve seen with terms like pandemic pods and micro-schools, definitions vary.

The simple answer to this is no, online and remote are not the same. Similar, but different. And the easiest way to think about the differentiator is through intention

Typically, an “online class” was always meant to be delivered online. Common in undergrad and the workforce, it’s a course that has been designed specifically for a digital format, using a platform like Canvas, Blackboard, or Google Classroom. Its teacher is trained in delivering online instruction.

Remote learning, on the other hand, can “mimic” the traditional classroom environment. Students frequently find themselves “attending” live classes at specific times. It’s also used in hybrid and blended learning models, where students do attend classes, but don’t always follow a traditional M-F, 8am-3pm schedule with class times that are set in stone.  

Can Remote Learning Be Effective?

To be perfectly honest, we don’t have enough experience with remote learning yet to know if it can be effective. So far, research paints a bleak picture. However, one thing we do know is that our teachers are relentless. They’ve found ways to make the best out of an increasingly difficult situation. 

A few considerations when thinking about remote learning’s effectiveness:

Methods

Good teaching relies on the methods of its practitioners. Teachers know this better than anyone else. Finding a balance between direction instruction (like lectures) and activities, however difficult in a remote setting, can help keep student engagement high.

Teachers are truly leading the charge on what a virtual classroom might look like in the future. Their input will be vital in crafting lessons that can be successfully delivered online. This goes far beyond the coronavirus. If utilized effectively, minimized forms of remote learning can serve as productive out-of-class extensions.  

Frequency

With remote learning’s inherent flexibility comes talk of its adherence to a traditional schedule. Necessary? Or can it follow an altered agenda, perhaps making it more like online learning? The short-term problem with this questioning returns to an earlier point – we don’t know. Maybe less whole group meeting time in tandem with richer and longer assignments will yield productive academic growth? 

We haven’t accumulated enough data yet to ascertain whether or not this might ring true, but we do know that teachers and students suffer from Zoom fatigue. Frequency of courses (and length of meetings) are both worthy points of examination.  

Implementation

It should go without saying, but implementation is the driving force behind any effective curriculum. COVID-19 showed us that we must have contingency plans in place across all facets of society – even more so with education, which affects the livelihood and wellbeing of our kids and young adults.

Plenty of schools will admit – March 2020 was pure chaos. Plans had to be written, reviewed, revised, and implemented in record-fast time, leaning into expediency over general effectiveness. 

Eight months later, as schools look to reopen and rebound from instruction lost in spring and fall (as well as the usual summer time fallout), remote learning still presents an extremely precarious situation.

Eventually, we’ll all have time to breathe and evaluate. In doing so, the education world can improve upon how it implements remote learning programs. 

How to Use STEM Kits in a Remote Environment

boy smiling at finished project - studying through remote learning

Thimble is proud to offer STEM products and resources geared toward creativity, innovation, and hands-on learning. 

What’s more, we’ve found our STEM kits to be perfect tools for pandemic pods, micro-schools, and other remote learning environments.

The beauty of using STEM kits in remote instruction is that they can be completed individually or in small groups. All of our kits afford students access to online instructors and resources as well, making each project as digitally collaborative as can be. 

Hands-on learning is a great way to take students off their devices for a bit, while still challenging their minds and critical thinking skills.

Whether you’re a teacher looking for ways to spice up remote instruction or a parent looking for new ways to keep your student(s) engaged, we’re here to help! Sign up to observe a free class! 

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