Distance Learning Tips

Last Friday, Renay logged off the computer a little jittery, she blamed the late morning coffee run being off schedule, but there was something else going on. It had been three solid days of meetings and preparations for the first three days of school. And Friday was the end of that first week with students. There was so much to unpack and unfortunately: everyone who could possibly need to have the conversation with, they were too burned out to start the conversation.

We have discussed a lot about Distance Learning, but we haven’t had concrete tips until now. Part of the reason was we sincerely did believe back in April, ‘well this will last until June’. And then June came and went, and now many districts are using computers only. There are just as many schools that are attempting Hybrid, some students on-site, some students at home. And there are many schools that are just at ‘business as normal’.

For That Co-Worker who should not touch wires

Renay has spent the better part of her entire working life either working with computers or working on computers—building them from just sketches into physical spaces. She knows a computer can be simple as a sorting machine with a mechanical flipper or as complex as a satellite. Computers make sense to Renay and have since she first saw one when she was five.

But with a spectrum of staff who have worked for just three years to over twenty-five years, some staff are not nearly as happy to see Distance Learning right now. Renay has been the default trainer for over 20 people on staff outside and in addition to her normal work duties.

What can we do with the staff? How do we get them comfortable?

  • Constant training: Staff who use multiple devices (Tablets, different operating systems—called OS) are probably the most problematic unless they are comfortable with their devices. Giving staff different ways to get in only works if they are paying attention to looking for the differences to give success
  • Don’t force the panic, don’t give a staff member who is learning more connection than they are ready for
  • Lobby the companies to not use the same options—this one is harder, for example, one company uses ‘more’ as a button with different options in at least five different locations across the screen. The ‘more’ button does something different at the bottom of the screen than the participant list than in the ‘raise your hand’ option bar. That consistent language to help navigate a novice is really important.
  • If you happen to be the coworker who knows and says that technology shouldn’t be an option: screaming louder into the microphone will not change the situation. But we also know something else: we miss you too. Well, maybe not the screaming part.

For Teachers

  • Slow down. Nope curriculum is not a reason to keep going faster. Slow down. Some students are still learning to navigate Learning Management Systems (LMS). Slow down. Students need that time to get to know each other in break out rooms. Slow down. Even if you need to get through more material in less time. Slow down. We realize the panic of building a plane, flying the plane, taping down problems on the flying plane, and studying aerodynamics from book one written at a book ten level. If you slow down, you will prevent your burn out. Slow down.
  • About taking roll online for real-time attendance (often called synchronous): Several people go about doing these different ways, students type in a warmup answer, students say ‘hi’, students are admitted from a lobby. However, you are choosing, getting in the habit of saying the student’s name. Get in the habit of welcoming that student, but slow down (did we mention this already?), let the student know you are learning their name, appreciating that they are entering class just like they had entered in real life.
  • Make your cursor/mouse pointer bigger. This helps with tracking. Some options, usually in Windows, allow you to even change the color of the mouse arrow. Encourage the students to do the same especially before a group presentation. Why? It takes time to track if you move your mouse over. Kids are keeping up with their classmate’s expressions, maybe something that was said about a discussion, they are trying to pay attention to you and hold that in their mind. An older student might manage this all right, a younger student might manage one or two things all right, and a student with a disability might just tune out and not do the activity. Slow down. Give the students who are tuning out a fighting chance to stay in class, even virtually.
  • And about those students—expect parents to be in the room. Well, wait you asked them to be in a distraction-free environment. Except your students might have disabilities or they might be under ten. The student with a disability might have a family member or an in-home support provider helping the student get online. The rule of thumb for ages was that the family computer or the child who used a computer, especially a computer online was to be used in a family public area. This was to help monitor the activity of the child and encourage good skills in the use of computers and especially not using computers for the number of hours on end.
  • While we are on those number of hours of computer usage: build in those brain breaks for students. Not just for students in elementary, students in secondary too. Teach students to look up and write one thing they see out the nearest window, teach students to stand up and reach for their toes, and come back to their seats after thirty seconds. Ergonometric standards for adults still say 20 minutes on then for 20 seconds looking at something over 20 feet away. Children can only attend naturally for so many minutes in normal life. Let’s give the kids good habits when it comes to using computers.
  • It might be too late now, but the phrases “Mute” and “Unmute” while natural seeming to adults, they actually come across muddled to some students, even those who wear headsets. Some suggestions: make a slide show and include icons for “green microphone” and “red microphone” for different times students are expected to have their microphones muted or unmuted. We also have had some success with students ‘microphone on’ and ‘microphone off’
  • Having access to your day’s presentation matters. We thought this was a feature of Renay being in grad school, but she explained that there is no good system to have a visual agenda of activities. That the students need to be able to review those activities or discussion points to have that reference.
  • Well if the students have a visual agenda, then they should split their screen. Okay but one second. A split-screen or holding two different windows open is most useful when taking notes from online reading. We generally surmise perhaps in ELA, History, or Science classes. It can be found in maybe Music or even PE, but we really aren’t fans of split-screen. The reason? The majority of the students in districts across the country are on Chromebooks. And Chromebooks with small screens (under 15 inches). Every microinch of that screen’s real estate matters. Two tabs open, one for notes, one for the lecture are going to eat into that space. Open a third for online reading and now you may not be able to see as much as if you had one window open. It is a skill a student will need to manage, but keep in mind: how long the student will be working like that, how long a student needs to complete an assignment
  • While we are on that: completing assignments take longer. They take longer online because they require a different set of muscle memories and executive functioning. Students are still developing their executive functioning and this can be quite complex. “Finish the math problems” involves 1) getting online, 2) remembering the password to the online textbook [even with a Single Sign-On (SSO), this is still required], 3) finding paper at home or the document to turn in for math class, 4) sitting so the math can be done, 5) remembering process for turning in work –may involve using their cell phone for ‘scanning’, 6) remembering to click ‘submit’

We have to talk though about the stories that are bubbling up: the teachers who quit in the middle of class online or the teachers who are not all right and turning on their video feed to teach class. And we are certain paraeducators are among them.

If you are in need of support: reach out to someone on campus you trust. If there is an emergency going on and it warrants a call to 9-1-1: please do so. Then call your administrator. If you are uncomfortable with what the students are seeing from a teacher, they are probably uncomfortable too. Contact your administrator.

If you need to quit: please do not do it publicly. We truly appreciate frustrations with the systems provided. We know students are not interacting the same as if they were in person. And we certainly know that few are trained to give distance learning. We know content demands are different, we know that not everything wants to interact the way things should between different pieces of technology. If you cannot handle being a teacher online, we respect that, but we want to give you dignity when you leave. Quitting in the middle of a class makes it very hard though we understand why you might quit.

Where is the support staff?

Support staff is a service provided to students to access academics or support positive behaviors. But at distance, the behaviors become the secondary function of the job.

A few things to keep in mind for paraeducators at a distance:

  1. You might be skipping your breaks, don’t. You need that break for stretching from being on the computer that long. And you need to grab a chance at the bathroom or check in on family distance learning or educating themselves.
  2. Having access to the LMS that allows you to help students figure out their assignments being different than their peers is also useful.
  3. Teach your students who are able to share their screens. This will negate the issues of navigating an adult interface verses what the student sees. Teach the student to slow down too.
  4. Finding ways to keep students who have challenges in paying attention by offering may rewards to the student for participation. Give that student honest praise for their contributions.

There is a lot going on. It will be all right. Some things to look up: box breathing. Pattern this into your schedule every twenty minutes, more often if things are going awry.

The world demands more of us. And this is what we are facing right now. We can either push the demands away or we can rise up. Educators typically rise up. And we will support each other to rise up.

And a funny story before we depart

We all know about cats interrupting online meetings. One particular cat walked across a keyboard of a school device and turned on screen magnification. The aforementioned cat was summarily banished from the student’s learning space. In summary: know where the accessibility features are on the school devices just in case.

One more thing:

ParaEducate will be off next week Monday for Labor Day. We will return September 14, 2020.

Do you have any comments about this week’s blog? Do you have a question for us? Would you like to have an opportunity to pilot some materials at your campus? Find ParaEducate online herehereherehere, and on our website. ParaEducate is a company providing materials, information, and strategies for people working in special education inclusion settings for grades K-12. ParaEducate, the blog, is published during the academic school year on Mondays, unless a holiday or announced day off. ParaEducate shares their findings at conferences, through their books, and their academic adaptations.

About paraeducate

ParaEducate is a company run to help reach out to paraeducators or paraprofessionals in public K-12 schools, giving advice, talking about publications that ParaEducate produces, and other useful information regarding working in public school settings.
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