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Analysis: Teaching students in person and online at the same time is a huge challenge. 4 ways to bridge the home-classroom gap

Beth Rabbitt | April 5, 2021



The Learning Accelerator

Across the country, educators are working hard to support students learning in hybrid contexts, where students are attending school both online and in person. In many schools, staff availability to teach, attendance policies and a desire to have students working with teachers for as much time as possible mean many districts are pursuing a simultaneous learning approach (known in various circles as concurrent learning, Zoom-in-room or and hyflex instruction), where teachers work with all students, regardless of location, at the same time.

However, despite hard work and good intentions, full-time, simultaneous learning is not a best practice. Meta analysis finds online models are least effective when teachers are trying to engage learners from a distance while managing an in-person classroom in real time. Anecdotally, teachers say making this work well can be a challenge of epic proportions.

To be clear, hybrid schooling does not need to default to a simultaneous approach. In schools where all students have access to resources for learning, simultaneous time can be used alongside other strategies for specific goals and purposes and kept to a minimum. Teachers, and the leaders setting up ground rules for teaching, should consider which tasks, activities and means of access (be they synchronous or asynchronous, in-person or online) are best suited for students working in different environments at which times.

Rarely will this mean that two cohorts working across contexts (distance and non) should be engaging for an entire day — or even an entire lesson — at the same time.

Yet, right now, that’s the model many schools employ, and having at least some learners participate remotely in a concurrent manner, online and in-person, will likely be part of the solution for the near future for a few important reasons.

On the health side, while vaccinations will make reopening more likely, experts warn that COVID-19 and needed risk-mitigation strategies, like reductions in class size, will remain a challenge in the next school year. Given the staffing constraints this can impose, some schools may have to maintain hybrid approaches with smaller cohorts for at least part of the time. Individual students may be out due to illness or quarantine, and we’ll need to support children continuing to learn even if needing to do so from home.

On the learning side, educators managing hybrid cohorts report challenges keeping the full class connected together as a unit, an essential task when students can finally come back together as one. From an innovation standpoint, many school systems are now also thinking about how to accommodate virtual learning, either in full or as a way to offer independent learning and flexibility. We need to figure out how to consistently build culture and relationships across all learners, whether online or off, to ease transitions and ensure online students remain connected to their broader community.

Given all this, it’s worth considering how we can make simultaneous learning work better for more teachers and students. Evidence gleaned from research and from talking to educators across the U.S. suggests there are four big takeaways for thinking about how to better bridge the home-classroom engagement gap:

1. Take a “remote-first” approach to organizing materials and ways of communicating and working.

It’s easier to make agendas, high-quality curricular materials and classroom expectations available online than to ask teachers to retrofit existing in-person materials for both environments (doubling the workload and ensuring students are, quite literally, never on the same page). Clear expectations and ways of engaging students that work for online learners will also work for those in school. Creating consistency through common tools and norms for their use is essential.

2. Double down on community and culture.

Engagement strategies need to cross the virtual divide. Finding ways for learners online to buddy up with in-person classmates, to work together through technology and to connect more deeply as people can help keep the whole class participating together. Educators need to constantly ask, “How am I building a sense of community and group engagement?”

3. Make lessons dynamic.

Beyond mixing up activities and materials for the whole group, consider how to employ the time-tested elementary school structure of learning centers (e.g. station rotation, where students move through different groups and activities) to create time and space for small-group instruction and conferencing, peer learning and independent work for all. This approach will free up teachers to engage more deeply with all learners, online and offline. To get this right, students need clear guidance for knowing what’s expected, getting to the right place and seeking help (see point 1 above).

4. Motivate every person.

Online learners are more likely to have trouble persevering through challenges and often need to exert significant self-direction. Consider how offering choices, giving students the chances to pursue interests and work at their own pace (or with selected peers) can help them find motivation and make tasks more personally relevant.

Figuring out how to get simultaneous learning right is critical right now. As we explore the future of school innovation and test the bounds of how and where learning happens, assuming we do it effectively, learning together how to work together across boundaries will be a critical tool for teachers to meet the needs of every student.

Beth Rabbitt, Ed.L.D., is CEO of The Learning Accelerator, a national nonprofit that connects teachers and leaders with the knowledge, tools, and networks they need to enact personalized and mastery-based practices to transform K-12 education.

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