Cerebrum Fall 2020

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EVEN AS COVID-19 INFECTIONS CONTINUE TO slow in the New Jersey area where she lives and works, Rebecca DeSimone, a 9th grade Spanish teacher, will start all of her classes online this fall. As a 22-year public school educator—who has already used technology regularly in her in-person classes—she now finds herself struggling, unsure how to structure her courses so they will facilitate learning. Precious little of her professional development, to date, has looked at how kids learn best when being taught remotely. “I would love a list of ideas that will really engage the kids while they are home—something that people already know works and will help the kids pay attention and actually learn what they need to learn,” she says. “But I feel like we are the blind leading the blind here. I’m not sure how to make my classes work online. I’m not even sure what my expectations for my students should be.” DeSimone is not alone in that sentiment. Both teachers and parents across the country are wondering just how effective online instruction will be this school year. Barbara Means, Ph.D., executive director at Digital Promise, a nonprofit organization created by Congress to accelerate innovation in education, has spent her career studying how digital technologies can enhance traditional learning. She says it’s

important not to equate the “remote emergency instruction” that took place last spring with “intentional” online courses created using key principles of instructional design. “There are many reasons—and vulnerabilities—that may lead to a student doing more poorly in an online class than in a traditional, face-to-face environment,” she says. “But learning is

Barbara Means / Digital Promise

learning. And when instructors can design courses that help support students as they learn, online instruction can be quite effective.” Processing Information: In-person vs. Computer According to National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 7 million students were enrolled in online courses at post- secondary institutions in 2018. Colleges, however, were not the only ones to offer students the opportunity to log-on to learn. Twenty-one percent of primary and secondary public schools also offered certain classes online. Most public schools across the country rely on other forms of technology, including the use of personal smart phones or library computer stations, to supplement traditional classroom instruction, too. For many years, educators hoped that advances in technology would help bridge disparities in educational outcomes—connecting students of all backgrounds and in all locations with the best teachers in the world. Yet while they do provide increased access, it’s unclear whether online courses are as effective as in-person learning. Some studies link online education with poorer outcomes in both engagement and achievement. Others find the opposite. But such studies are often quite narrowly designed, looking at very specific tasks or groups of children. It’s hard to know when and where their results can and should be applied to online instruction as a whole. For example, there are numerous studies from the 1990s that suggest people are able to more easily attend to—and thus retain information from—paper books versus e-readers or computer screens. Many of those studies suggest those differences are due to the lack of additional tactile input to the brain as you turn papers and navigate the text. Yet, as anyone who has ever tried to solely rely on a textbook to cram for an exam after skipping too many classes knows, education is much more than simply comprehending texts. Today’s online learning platforms employ a variety of different activities, ranging from streaming video lectures to interactive games, to help students better consume new material.


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