Virtual Teaching for Equity and Excellence
Throughout our nation and around the world, educators are racing to consider how they can advance teaching and learning in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. How can we best ensure that all students will continue to learn, grow, and thrive when school buildings must close? How can we best utilize the world of virtual learning resources in ways that will ensure both equity and excellence for all we serve? These are urgent questions without simple answers. Certainly, the answers are more complex than simply providing electronic devices, implementing electronic learning management systems, or referring parents to a few websites.
At NCUST, we do not consider ourselves experts regarding virtual learning. In our studies of high-performing urban schools, we have identified impressive uses of technology tools that inspire a love of learning. Conversely, in our visits to struggling schools, we have observed uses of technology that are more likely to bore and depress students than nurture their educational growth. Currently, we partner with virtual learning academies that are endeavoring to enrich their offerings in ways that better ensure that all students will achieve great academic successes. So, even though we are not virtual learning “experts,” we believe we are learning some important lessons that might be useful to teachers, schools, and school districts that are eager to broaden their use of virtual learning tools in service to their students.
Primarily, we conclude that, regardless of the presence or absence of bricks and mortar, great teaching and learning responds to the needs, and builds upon the strengths, of each student. The same principles, infused throughout schools that achieve impressive results for all demographic groups, apply to the world of virtual schooling. We acknowledge the following basic truths:
Students need to know that someone cares about their wellbeing and cares about their academic growth.
Whether we provide instruction three feet or three miles away from our students, students need to know we care about them, their wellbeing, and their future success in life. In face-to-face learning environments, great teachers find hundreds of ways to communicate a sincere concern and commitment that students feel and appreciate. Excellent teachers help students feel they are acknowledged and valued. Students in high-performing schools report that their teachers are interested in their lives and value them as human beings. In NCUST award-winning schools, we found so many educators who were “warm demanders.” They demanded the highest quality work from their students, and they did so in a manner that was warm and caring. Students knew their teachers were committed to their success.
Establishing a culture of care in virtual environments can be challenging. It is much easier to focus exclusively on the academic content; however, if we do so, students (and especially the students with the greatest needs) are not likely to benefit from even the most well-designed lessons. As we explore opportunities for virtual learning, we have to ask ourselves, “How can we design virtual instruction so that our students know someone is watching who cares about them personally? How can we make each of our students feel that we expect the very best from them, because we believe in their tremendous potential? How can we use technology tools to build our students’ capacity to interact with their peers in ways that will help them grow both academically and socially?” Internationally-respected author (and 2020 NCUST Symposium keynote speaker) Dr. Nancy Frey wrote the book, “All Learning is Social and Emotional.” How can we design virtual learning environments that adhere to this fundamental truth?
Students are not likely to learn content or develop depths of understanding beyond what we teach.
In high-performing schools, students have excellent opportunities to learn challenging academic content with an impressive depth of understanding. Teachers explicitly define what they want students to learn (curricula) in ways that equal and often exceed the expectations of state standards. Furthermore, teachers seek to ensure that all students will be able to discuss, explain, analyze, apply, and utilize the content in ways that reflect a substantial depth of understanding. Also, in high-performing schools, students are expected to learn art, music, drama, social studies, and many other areas of human endeavor. In fact, efforts to teach literacy, mathematics, and science are often enriched through lessons in the arts or other disciplines.
Unfortunately, many virtual learning platforms are little more than electronic worksheets that ask students to recall facts or implement procedures with little connection to the real world. Often, technology-based programs teach students “the right answer” without helping students understand why the answer is correct, how to find the correct answer, why the process for finding the correct answer makes sense, what might be other correct answers or processes for finding correct answers, why those strategies work, and how to apply strategies to solve new types of problems. Also, some virtual learning efforts attend solely to literacy and mathematics with little cross-curricular integration.
As educators consider virtual teaching options, it is important to consider how technology-based programs and products can be adapted or supplemented to push students beyond recall or the implementation of procedures. It is important to ask, “What can we modify or add that will help our students reach greater depths of understanding?” As well, it is important to ask, “How can we ensure that virtual learning tools will excite our students about exploring art, music, drama, and other important disciplines?”
Students need instruction that will engage them and lead them to understanding and mastery.
Regardless of our physical proximity to students, there is little value in providing instruction if it does not inspire the engagement of students. As well, there is little value in teaching, if teaching is not tailored in a manner that results in our students learning. In high-performing schools, educators support each other in designing instruction that has a high likelihood of sparking the interest of their students and leading their students to deep levels of learning.
Some virtual learning products might be perfect for students who are enthralled by the topic addressed, have abundant prior knowledge, and clearly see how the topic has relevance to their current and future lives. The same products might be far less effective for students who approach the topic with less confidence and less understanding of the topic’s relevance to their lives.
As educators approach virtual learning teaching options, it is important to consider how technology-based tools might be modified or supplemented in ways that are more likely to help students see connections with their experiences, backgrounds, cultures, and prior knowledge. How can we utilize technology to stimulate powerful collaborations among students so that they are more likely to develop deep understandings of important concepts? How can existing technology-based programs serve as a springboard that helps launch our students to new explorations of the physical world and the virtual world in which they live?
The importance of culture, curricula, and the quality of instruction are powerfully obvious in high-performing schools. Similarly, they are important to the success of whatever schooling we pursue through virtual means. I worry that if we fail to attend to these issues, we will only exacerbate achievement gaps. On the other hand, if we can focus our professional learning communities in ways that help us ensure that we make optimal uses of technology-based options, perhaps, we can accelerate our efforts to ensure the learning success of all the children we have the privilege to serve.
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