High Quality Instructional Materials for Remote Learning
Wider use of online instruction in K-12 schooling has many educators looking for suitable materials or looking to adapt existing materials for use in online formats. The quality of all instructional materials varies, of course: some materials are better than others, and some materials are suitable in some contexts but not others.
Deciding what to use for online instruction requires careful attention, as it does with choosing all instructional materials. Choices for remote learning can improve with time and attention. This Foundational Concept, though, begins by briefly unpacking the two vectors for remote learning. In the process it reviews relevant vocabulary.
Two Vectors for Remote Teaching and Learning
When the need for remote learning appears, educators' thinking turns to the online vector: delivering materials and instruction over the internet. But reliable broadband service is simply not universal in Ohio or the United States. Digital remote learning must be complemented in many locales (especially rural ones) with offline resources and options.
Online. Online remote learning makes use of various resources, or groups of them. These resources might be selected by a BLT, TBT, or individual teacher. Whatever group does the selection, it should apply the criteria best positioned to identify high quality materials.
Some examples of resources used to provide remote learning opportunities are:
- the PDF of a textbook,
- a YouTube video of a teacher demonstrating a science experiment,
- a synchronous instructional session using video conferencing software,
- podcasts about a history topic,
- apps for practicing math facts,
- a learning management platform such as Moodle.
Offline. Another type of remote learning relies on the delivery and retrieval of print materials or perhaps computers or other types of equipment especially prepared for offline learning. Offline remote learning has a lot in common with the dominant remote-learning format of the mid-20th century: the correspondence course.
In the contemporary case, however, some interaction between students and teachers is advisable, by telephone or in person via (for instance) regularly scheduled home visits. According to the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), high quality instructional materials in the offline mode exhibit a fit with students' instructional trajectory or plan, include hands-on activity, and encourage exploration.
Understanding the Vocabulary
Experience with remote learning is a new experience for many K-12 educators, especially as the substitute for classroom instruction. It comes with its own vocabulary.
- Remote learning is what happens when students and teachers are separated by time or distance: they can't meet in a classroom. It may be conducted online or offline.
- Blended learning refers to a combination of remote learning and classroom learning.
- Learning management systems (LMS) are online platforms that educators use for delivering courses. An LMS allows an educator to manage enrollment, share materials, promote communication among students, provide assignments, administer assessments, grade assignments, and so forth).
- Open-education resources are provided without charge. They are "in the public domain" (see the Creative Commons for access).Synchronous learning is remote learning arrangements that enable participants to interact at the same time. It's contrasted with asynchronous learning—an arrangement enabling participants to interact on their own timetable over a specified period of time.
Learning the terms is just a start. The vocabulary connects to classroom practices and skills familiar to teachers—but making the technology go and evolving the familiar routines for remote learning is an entirely new experience for many educators. The short list above is adapted from entries on a longer list available from EdReports.
The mid- and late-twentieth-century consensus on remote learning was that it worked best when students were self-directed. But not all students are self-directed. In fact, self-directed learning is something that schools try to teach.
Providing opportunities for self-directed remote learning is not easy even when educators collaborate with parents and other caregivers. In fact, learning that primarily relies on compliance with adult-directed routines (e.g., the completion of sets of worksheets) seems to be an efficient option when schooling needs to become remote.
Pushing back against a compliance-focused kind of teaching and learning is a challenge. But remote learning can incorporate the sorts of projects that scaffold students' curiosity and engagement by giving them opportunities for exploration, problem-solving, and the development of original products (Darling-Hammond, 2020; ODE, 2020, April 1). Starting with high-quality instructional materials can help teachers plan lessons and units that encourage students to think for themselves, collaborate in meaningful ways with classmates, and begin to take responsibility for their own learning.
High Quality Instructional Materials are Critical to Student Success
Online materials need to be of high quality. To support that result, selection of materials for remote learning requires skepticism and discernment. Being skeptical means evaluating the claims of value made by publishers. Discernment has to do with seeing clearly and identifying correctly what one sees.
Are the marketing claims too good to be true? How strong is the evidence presented? What does other evidence (not provided by the publisher) say? How well do the materials fit with state standards? How well do they fit with the goals of the district and the school?
The work of selection isn't just a matter of identifying what a group of educators (e.g., the textbook selection committee) prefers. Evidence shows that some instructional materials are actually superior to others. For instance, a study of student achievement related to four different mathematics textbooks used in California found that one outperformed the other three over multiple grade levels (Kodel & Polikoff, 2017). The What Works Clearinghouse is filled with such evidence about many products. But educators' own informed judgment is always needed for selection that is locally appropriate. This goes for materials to support both online and offline learning.
According to several sources (e.g., Steiner, 2018; EdReports.org, 2020), discerning selection involves applying such criteria as:
- alignment to state standards,
- use of research-based practices,
- fit with the existing scope and sequence for student learning;
- availability of related professional development, and
- accessibility and potential for differentiation (e.g., for students with disabilities and English learners).
No matter what instructional materials are eventually selected, however, educators' capacity to use high-leverage instructional practices is even more important. But educators – even those who are well-versed in the use of high-leverage practices – often struggle to deploy those practices for remote learning. Not surprisingly, therefore, remote learning is still an improvisation in most districts.
Ohio Department of Education Guidance
Ideally, Ohio's leadership teams (DLTs, BLTs, TBTs) will exercise direction over the selection of materials for remote learning; and the Ohio Department of Education is providing an evolving set of guidelines and suggestions. Relevant guides are provided through the links in the list below.
Darling Hammond, L. (2020, May 19). A "New Deal" for education: Top 10 policy moves for states in the COVID 2.0 era. Learning Policy Institute. https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/blog/covid-new-deal-education-top-10-state-policy-moves
EdReports.org (2020). Instructional materials during remote learning reflection and planning tool. https://www.edreports.org/resources/article/instructional-materials-during-remote-learning-reflection-and-planning-tool
Koedel, C., & Polikoff, M. (2017). Big bang for just a few bucks: The impact of math textbooks in California. Evidence Speaks Reports, 2(5), 1-7. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/es_20170105_polikoff_evidence_speaks.pdf
Ohio Department of Education. (2020, April 1). Remote learning resource guide. Ohio's Remote Learning Resource Guide
Ohio Department of Education (2020, April 30). Ohio's remote learning resources. http://education.ohio.gov/Topics/Student-Supports/Coronavirus/Ohio%E2%80%99s-Remote-Learning-Resources
Ohio Department of Education. (2020, August 10). Planning for remote or blended learning. http://education.ohio.gov/Topics/Reset-and-Restart/Blended-and-Remote-Learning-Comparison
Steiner, D. (2018). Materials matter. The Learning Professional, 39(6), 25-28. https://learningforward.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/materials-matter.pdf