Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

This Is Emergency Remote Teaching, Not Just Online Teaching

There’s a difference
By Natalie B. Milman — March 30, 2020 3 min read
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I have taught online for nearly 20 years. As an online professor at George Washington University, my courses continued through the 9/11 terrorist attacks, beltway snipers, Hurricane Isabel, the H1N1 virus, and “Snowmaggedon.” Even when I lost power and was stranded in my home, I charged my phone in my car and provided updates on our learning-management system from my smartphone.

During these emergencies, however, the content was already developed and lectures scheduled to launch for the entire semester. Clearly, disruption of our daily lives is not unusual, and preparedness is important, but what we are all experiencing because of COVID-19 is unprecedented.

These are not normal teaching and learning conditions. What we are experiencing now is emergency remote teaching and learning—or as some have called it, “pandemic pedagogy.”

It takes a lot of time and effort to design and develop effective, engaging online education. There are already many naysayers noting how inferior online education is, but the truth is that it is not the medium that matters but the design of the learning experiences, the quality of the content, and the engagement of learners.

Well-designed online education can be just as effective as face-to-face instruction. Educators suddenly thrust into emergency remote teaching do not have ideal conditions to offer well-planned, quality instruction.

On top of that, we are all living through a pandemic with a great deal of uncertainty. Everyone is likely experiencing some levels of stress about the unknown (How long will this last? How will this work? Who will get sick/survive/die? How will this affect employment? Will the virus come back in waves?).

So, how can schools across the country help bring high-quality remote education to all students during this pandemic?

First and foremost, school leaders and teachers need to be clear that we are functioning in an emergency. There is no playbook for how to lead and teach remotely at this scale, but here are my suggestions for leaders and educators struggling to adjust:

1. Communicate frequently and honestly: Frequent, straightforward, and honest communication is essential. Not only does it address questions students and families might have, but it also gives assurance that you have a plan–even if it is evolving. Also, ensure everyone knows when and how to access communications. Be sure to touch base with colleagues and students on a regular basis. Document any concerns and those with whom you need to loop back.

2. Prioritize needs: Establish short- and long-term priorities and steps to address them. There is a lot to be accomplished. It’s critical to determine what needs to be done and by when.

3. Be flexible: We are functioning in uncharted territory. Many policies and practices that work in brick-and-mortar settings and even regular online classes may not apply. School leaders and teachers will need to be flexible and, in some cases, very creative.

4. Keep it simple: Although numerous companies are offering free subscriptions to a lot of content and technology tools, this is not the time to roll out new tools–unless there is no other option.

5. Establish routines and schedules: When a school’s staff and students are distributed across many miles, it is important to establish schedules for virtual conferences, meetings, and communications.

6. Collaborate: School leaders should work with faculty and staff, as well as other school leaders. This is a unique opportunity to learn from and with one another, and not just within one’s district or state. Many online communities have emerged on social media and in professional organizations.

7. Engage the whole school community in decisionmaking: When possible and relevant, include a diverse range of voices in decisionmaking; this will not only recognize their roles as part of the learning community but also foster buy-in.

8. Develop contingency plans: Leaders, teachers, staff, students, and their family members will get sick and be unable to meet their responsibilities—and not only because of COVID-19. Technology will fail. Things will not always work as planned. Be sure to have contingency plans in place.

9. Practice, model, and promote well-being: School leaders and teachers’ well-being (and not just emotional and physical but also social and intellectual) are important. Practice, model, and promote overall well-being.

10. Pause, listen, reflect, and learn: We all have a great deal to learn from this pandemic. However, it is easy to blaze ahead without pausing or reflecting on lessons learned. What approaches supported the transition to emergency remote teaching and learning? What policies changed? How did stakeholders adapt?

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