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Viewpoints and Findings from the REL Mid-Atlantic

Instruction in the Age of COVID-19: Exploring the Evidence on Remote Learning
By Felicia Hurwitz and Steven Malick

Instruction in the Age of COVID-19: Exploring the Evidence on Remote Learning

As schools across the country closed their doors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, educators sought answers to questions about how to make the most of remote instruction. To support our educators, REL Mid-Atlantic reviewed the existing research to identify promising practices that educators could implement quickly. This review revealed that the existing research base does not precisely address our situation—most studies compare remote learning strategies against traditional face-to-face instruction, an option that isn't available to students or teachers today. But in the age of COVID-19, with school buildings closed, we need to ask a different question: When kids have to be at home, what are the best remote learning strategies available—with or without the Internet, web‑enabled devices, and comprehensive educational supports?

Even though prior research did not anticipate our current situation, we can still infer a lot from the available evidence:

  • Students need real-time, synchronous interaction with instructors. The studies we found with negative results involved schools and courses with very little real-time interaction between teachers and students. These programs expect students to be highly motivated and sufficiently self-disciplined to do most of their work on their own. The key takeaway is that, even though constant synchronous instruction may be unrealistic, teachers should try to work regularly with their students in real time. Ideally, that would mean conducting class by videoconference at regular times. If that isn't possible, teachers might create opportunities for synchronous interaction through virtual office hours or by talking with students on the telephone, for example.
  • Students need ongoing tutoring, feedback, support, and relationships with their instructors and peers. Learning happens through human interactions that build trust and push learners to think about ideas in new and different ways. In the COVID-19 era, students can take photos of their work and correspond with their teachers through text messages, email, or regular mail. In addition, schools and local education agencies can take advantage of features embedded in online learning modules to help the exchange of students' work and teachers' feedback.
  • Educators can employ human-centered design principles to solve problems and foster out-of-the-box thinking. The desire to solve problems is at the core of project-based learning and human-centered design, and humans are natural problem solvers. Educators should develop projects that connect to students' desire to fix something, especially when the problems relate to their lived experiences. For example, students can take on the role of a historian, choosing objects they would want to preserve for a museum and explaining why these artifacts are significant and matter for preservation. Tying academic content to the real world can make learning more productive.
  • Activities that engage students and employ techniques drawn from behavioral science can help remove friction points. Some literature we reviewed focused on the benefits of gaming and virtual simulations to increase learning. We know these might not be options for everyone, but employing ideas from gaming into student work is possible. Teachers should consider how students can explore content in different ways. For example, could competitions be included in their lessons? What about content-embedded games, such as this math game, that students could tackle independently?
  • Resources and materials can supplement online learning. Technology for technology's sake won't work. Instead, technology should enhance learning rather than just deliver content. Students and their families can benefit from resources to help them explore content without their teachers. For example, providing explicit directions, frequently asked questions, and links to quality educational resources can boost students' learning outside of synchronous instruction.

During crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, creating safe, nurturing, and authentic learning conditions is more challenging than ever. Making these types of unanticipated adjustments requires change at all levels, with educators and administrators in need of supports to select and effectively implement new ways of schooling. Please contact us if you think REL Mid-Atlantic can help you implement evidence-based practices in this new era.