This time it’s personal: Making the most of distance learning

We’re all looking for silver linings these days. For example, while many of us are weary of living so much of our lives online, we also recognize it’s fortunate that tech tools exist to help us maintain a semblance of connection to our schools and workplaces, not to mention our friends and families.

The same goes for distance learning. Connecting over Wi-Fi instead of in a classroom has plenty of drawbacks for teachers and students alike, but the virtual environment does offer some advantages when it comes to personalized learning—and we should be making the most of those advantages.

Using project-based learning, novel strategies for overcoming learning loss, and instructional connections with trusted content providers, schools can help students stay engaged, even during a time when much of their work is self-directed. You may not be able to see your students in person as often as you’d like, but what you can do is use great instructional resources from a variety of providers and leverage the private nature of the virtual space to offer more targeted, personalized learning for students.

Personalization in action

We all want to make education more engaging and personally meaningful for kids, but the brave new world of distance learning has turned this challenge on its head. Nevertheless, many of the same best practices that work well in a brick-and-mortar classroom can be successfully adapted for the online space.

Our guide “4 ways to challenge students through personalization” describes a handful of strategies that not only help students meet grade-level standards, but also help them make tangible progress by focusing on their interests and goals. Take a quick look at these approaches below, and check out the guide for more details.

  • Learner profile—An asset developed with student input that details their strengths, challenges, aspirations, and talents.
  • Personalized learning paths—A student-driven, teacher-supported set of short- and long-term goals.
  • Project-based learning—A powerful personalization strategy that draws from assessment data to create dynamic student groups based on learning preferences and instructional readiness.
  • Personal learning backpack—A set of instructional resources that includes virtual learning content providers and is customized for each student.

With some imagination and savvy use of resources, you may find that these strategies are a natural fit for the virtual environment and the particular challenges and opportunities of asynchronous learning. Students working on their learner profiles, for example, can use whatever technology works best for them, whether it’s a Google Doc or a smartphone video. And as you work with students to develop personalized learning paths, notice how the inherent freedom of the virtual environment can support this process. Many students have more self-directed time these days than they’re used to, which creates a space for them to take more ownership over their goals and the steps they’ll take to reach them.

As for project-based learning, take advantage of the flexible school day to send students on independent fact-finding quests and decide what kinds of projects they’d like to pursue. Look for ways that technology can help you break your classes into smaller work groups, using breakout rooms and other online tools to create intimate learning spaces and facilitate collaboration. See Edutopia’s series of articles for smart, actionable tips on how project-based learning can be done—and done well—in virtual environments.

Explore the universe of instructional connections

As you outfit your students with their own personal learning backpack, as described above, think about the key role that online learning content providers can play. You are likely already familiar with many of these trusted partners. What’s new is the enhanced support they’re providing to help teachers connect assessment data to online curricula and adjust their instruction accordingly. NWEA partners like Achieve3000, DreamBox, Edgenuity, Edmentum, Khan Academy, and Learning A-Z have stepped up to help teachers thoughtfully modify their instruction for the COVID-19 era. Leaning on these partners for support and fresh ideas is particularly helpful for the many schools that are dealing with acute unfinished learning—especially in math.

In addition to these connections with NWEA’s instructional partners, your students’ personal learning backpacks can include any number of tools suited to particular projects or learning styles. Some students will make appreciable gains using educational apps like Duolingo, while others may benefit from assistive technology like GoodReader. Visual learners may be drawn to presentation software, such as Keynote, while other students may benefit from research tools like Quora.

Of course, many students are already adept at using these kinds of technologies. They can probably teach you a thing or two! What they do need is your guidance as they navigate today’s learning landscape and incorporate these tools into their process. This is a time for trying different things and putting a new twist on established practices. If any of the ideas shared here resonate with you, dig a little deeper and see how they might help you create a more responsive, personalized learning environment for your students.

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