Rethink the school day: 3 ways to make the shift to online learning

When Neria Sebastien, EdD, taught for an exclusively online K­–12 school in Oregon, his school days began with a fresh take on a familiar ritual: a 20-minute homeroom. Instead of filing into a classroom just before the bell, his students logged on remotely, one by one, and took their place on their teacher’s computer screen.

Neria’s homeroom period wasn’t just a way to offer some continuity with the traditional learning environment. It was a means to create connection with students, set the tone for the day, and ensure they had the tools they needed in order to learn.

Neria is now a Professional Learning consultant at NWEA and assistant professor of special education in the College of Education at Seattle University. As someone who teaches other educators how to teach online, he firmly believes the virtual environment doesn’t have to be defined by its limitations. Rather, it presents a golden opportunity to make smart use of new technologies and think about the school day in a new way. He believes that online learning can be at least as rewarding and successful for kids as learning done in person, as long as a few key criteria are met.

“You can’t re-create the traditional brick-and-mortar school day in an online space, and in many cases that shouldn’t be the goal,” says Neria. “The online school day isn’t bound by location and it’s not bound by the type of supports that students get in the classroom. We need to think about the school day not being bound by time, either.”

[T]he virtual environment doesn’t have to be defined by its limitations. Rather, it presents a golden opportunity to make smart use of new technologies and think about the school day in a new way.

Teachers who take a flexible approach to structuring the school day, strive to understand each student’s personal situation, and seek out professional development and support have the best chance to make a successful transition to online learning, according to Neria.

1. Find a structure that makes sense

When in-person learning came to an abrupt halt this spring due to COVID-19, schools pivoted to remote learning and did their best to ease the transition for students. For many schools, this meant attempting to re-create a typical 8 am–3 pm day in the online space. But teachers soon recognized the threat of “Zoom fatigue” in keeping students engaged.

Based on his own experience teaching for an online school, Neria suggests that teachers break the mold of the typical school day and rebuild it in a way that makes the most sense for remote learning. This will look different for different classes, but adaptations could include one or more of the following:

  • No live sessions after lunchtime for younger students. “We know from the science of learning that younger kids are more active and engaged in the morning,” says Neria. “Teachers can try limiting their live learning sessions and assessments to the morning hours, and then dedicate the afternoons to different types of offline activities.”
  • Micro-groups and team teaching. The online space lends itself well to virtual breakout rooms and small-group learning. After a morning homeroom session, for example, teachers can form small-group live sessions for kids based on their learning progress and needs, with each group led by a teacher or teaching assistant who can give personalized attention.
  • Free, unstructured time. A student’s learning plan can flex to include time spent visiting a neighborhood park, biking or hiking, playing music, reading, and many other activities. Teachers can let students engage in these activities on their own time, documenting what they learn and sharing it with the class.

2. Know your students and ask the important questions

Neria advises that as you create your lesson plans in a remote or hybrid learning environment, consider what you know about your students—not just how they learn, but how well they are set up to succeed in the online space. Assessment results, as always, will be a key piece of the puzzle—and with all the learning loss that has occurred this year due to the pandemic, assessment will be even more important than usual. Beyond assessment, however, teachers will want to ask themselves a series of questions that are specific to the challenges of online learning and that will help them better understand each student’s situation and needs.

These wide-ranging questions include:

  • What kind of computers or devices are my students using for online learning?
  • How is their internet connection?
  • What are their home situations, and who’s around to provide support as a learning coach for each of my younger students?
  • Which of my students are non-native English speakers, have learning differences, are economically disadvantaged, or have other issues that could present special challenges in the online space?
  • Given what I know about my students’ age, learning level, and cognitive and emotional development, how do I create an immersive learning environment that will accommodate them?

Teachers can find answers to these questions by talking directly not only with students, but also with students’ guardians. Knowing how kids were doing academically before the pandemic hit and how they coped with remote learning in the spring will provide an important data point for teachers. Once the whole picture of their students’ lives comes into view, teachers can take the next step: determining what kinds of resources they can use—including third-party or open-source tools—to best engage their students.

[O]nline learning has a theoretical foundation that now spans at least a decade. […] [D]raw on that body of knowledge—and make sure you’re asking school leaders for the support you need.

Even though students won’t be physically together, their social development will continue, and teachers should be mindful of how this plays out in an online classroom, says Neria. Kids being kids, some will find a way to use technology in unproductive ways: spamming, excessive private chatting, and so on. In addition to actively coaching students in how to socialize with each other online, teachers can engage students to think about how their real-world social interactions can promote learning. Students’ interactions with parents, siblings, neighbors, and fellow students can both advance their social development and provide fodder for stimulating class discussion.

Finally, Neria reminds teachers that what looks like an accessible learning experience to an educator might not appear that way to all of their students.

“It’s keenly important to remember that while you may be working on a beautiful workstation with multiple monitors in front of you, not all of your students are working on that type of setup,” he says. “You have to develop lessons that all your students can access, whether they’re on a high-end Mac, Chromebook, cell phone, Kindle, or something else.”

3. Don’t reinvent the wheel—and don’t go it alone

The transition to online instruction can be daunting for teachers accustomed to the classroom, but Neria points out that online learning has a theoretical foundation that now spans at least a decade. Rather than going it alone, draw on that body of knowledge—and make sure you’re asking school leaders for the support you need.

“Teachers don’t need to become experts in this stuff,” says Neria. “They just need to know where to look for resources and best practices. There are some beautiful instructional models out there that teachers can tap into. With the right support, teachers can get the training they need to develop the skills and knowledge to take a traditional brick-and-mortar curriculum and refashion it for the online space.”

“Remote learning isn’t as simple as holding a book in front of your webcam and saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to read this book together,’” adds Neria. “It’s often not possible to re-create the in-person experience. Instead, teachers need new skills and new ways of thinking—and that has to come through professional development.”

You have to develop lessons that all your students can access, whether they’re on a high-end Mac, Chromebook, cell phone, Kindle, or something else.

However, while online instruction requires its own set of tactics, you may find that some of your favorite classroom activities do, in fact, translate well to the virtual classroom. Breakout rooms, for example, are the Zoom equivalent of small-group huddles, and they are easy to set up. Activities like Corners, in which students gather with peers in a corner of the classroom based on their answer to a specific question or their opinion on an issue, can be replicated online. Even show-and-tell, that venerable classroom exercise beloved by younger students, can be done in the virtual space.

Moving into the future of learning

For many years, educators have been discussing and working toward the goal of individualized learning. Neria believes that online education may very well bring us closer to that ideal.

“With online learning, we are freed from the limitations of the classroom,” he says. “We can pursue different kinds of social development opportunities, get kids out in nature, and do myriad other things that we probably couldn’t do during a regular school day if we’re in the classroom. Field trips, for example, could be a regular part of our students’ day rather than a rare experience. We just need to engage families to facilitate these opportunities.”

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