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How to Optimize Online Learning in the Age of Coronavirus (COVID-19): A 5-Point Guide for Educators

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Abstract

Due to the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) there will be increasing reliance on online learning for school students. There are some key considerations important to take into account when delivering online instruction. From my perspective as an educational psychologist, I propose 5 key considerations for educators to take into account when supporting students' online learning.
This is an extended version of the online article posted at UNSW Newsroom:
https://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/social-affairs/how-optimise-online-learning-age-
coronavirus
How to Optimize Online Learning in the Age of Coronavirus (COVID-19): A 5-Point
Guide for Educators
Andrew Martin
Professor of Educational Psychology
School of Education, UNSW Australia
Due to the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) there will be increasing reliance on online
learning for school students. There are some key considerations important to take into
account when delivering online instruction. From my perspective as an educational
psychologist, I propose 5 key considerations for educators to take into account when
supporting students’ online learning.
1. Instruction
It is important for online instruction to be as explicit, orderly, and well-organized as possible
– particularly when students are learning new or difficult subject matter. In the classroom,
teachers can monitor whether students are understanding things and can adjust instruction as
they go. In the classroom it is also easier to deliver information incrementally so students do
not get lost and it is easier to provide feedback in real-time. In an online environment it is
harder to monitor students’ understanding, and there is significant risk that lessons are poorly
organized and too much material is delivered too early—leaving learners lost. We have
identified Load Reduction Instruction as a way to reduce these risks. Following the principles
of Load Reduction Instruction, online lessons must be very clear and well-structured,
delivered in manageable chunks, allow good opportunity for students to practice what must
be learnt, and enable opportunities for the teacher to see students’ work and provide feedback
on time. When the teacher is satisfied the students have the basics, they can then provide
more independent and self-directed online learning activities.
2. Content
Alongside explicit instruction is the need for high quality content that is appropriate to the
learner’s level of knowledge and skill. There is a vast amount of poor quality online
information and learning materials. It is thus important that educators first do careful vetting
and selection of online materials and programs to ensure that students are working on the best
material possible. In the classroom, if the material is not such good quality the teacher can see
this and explain it better and provide real-time clarification and one-on-one help. This is
much harder in online environments. Also, reiterating an earlier point, it is important that the
content is not too difficult too soon. It must be delivered in doable chunks so the learner is
not overwhelmed or confused early in the learning process. Finally, remember that text books
are often well targeted to the education syllabus, written by experts in the field, reviewed by
other experts in the field, and designed to incrementally raise the bar on the learner as they
move through a given section or chapter. Many of these textbooks are available online—so
use them. On a related note, schools might also post hard copy materials to the home—
especially in cases where technology or online connections are unreliable.
3. Motivation
Motivation refers to students’ energy and effort as they learn. There are many parts to
motivationthe Motivation and Engagement Wheel captures the major ones that are critical
to any learning situation, including online learning. However, there is one area of motivation
particularly relevant to online learning: self-regulation—represented in the Wheel by self-
and task-management, planning, and persistence. In an online environment there is vast
potential for students to go off track, try to do too many things at once (multi-task), dive
down deep rabbit holes that are interesting but irrelevant, continually monitor and respond to
social messaging and emails, or abandon schoolwork altogether in favour of gaming, etc. In
essence, poor impulse control can be a real problem. High quality online instruction and
content that keeps the learner engaged and on track can reduce these risks (see Instruction
and Content considerations above). Frequently reminding students of these risks is also
important. Setting some work that can be printed and completed in hard copy separates the
student from technology for a whileand separates them from online temptations. School
requests to parents to monitor students’ online activity can also be helpful. Negotiating a
timetable with students for when they do online schoolwork and when they can catch up on
social media, game, etc. may also be viable. Encouraging students to remove all technology
from the bedroom during sleep hours is another important self-management strategy. The
point of all this is that students who can effectively regulate their use technology will be
better placed to learn in an online environment. Other aspects of self-management include:
setting more frequent due dates for small units of work (this also enables more frequent
opportunities for students to receive teacher feedback), developing a schoolwork timetable
for students for each school day, students maintaining bed-time and wake-up times that align
with the school day, and parents identifying a place at home where students can concentrate
while they do schoolwork.
4. Relationships
We are social creatures (something COVID-19 has capitalised on!). Interpersonal
relationships are integral to learning. The classroom is the ideal place where teacher-student
relationships and peer relationships can flourish. Students are pretty good at connecting with
peers online, so here I want to discuss the online teacher-student relationship. In an online
environment it is advisable that teachers maintain contact with the class in numerous ways,
such as via email, the school’s online learning platform, video, blogs, and class chat-groups.
From a relationship-perspective, ample opportunities for face-to-face online instruction is
important. If in doubt, teachers should over-communicate rather than under-communicate
with the class. Some of this can be pre-prepared and pre-recorded. Some can be in real-time.
As teachers maintain online contact with their class, schools will also need to ensure
appropriate teacher-student boundaries and uncompromised professionalism are observed.
Connective instruction has been developed as an educational approach that helps teachers
maintain connectedness with students in the everyday course of learning—including online
learning. This approach to teaching shows how educators can connect to students on three
channels: the interpersonal channel (e.g., emotionally supporting students), the content
channel (e.g., delivering content that is well-matched to students’ ability and interests), and
the instruction channel (e.g., supporting students through Load Reduction Instruction). The
more teachers get these three right, the more they will be connected to students in the course
of their learning.
5. Mental Health
Good mental health is not only a vital outcome in itself, it is a means to other important
outcomes—such as learning. If mental health suffers, learning usually suffers. When students
attend school in person, teachers and other support staff can observe students who may be
struggling, provide real-time assistance, and guide them to appropriate professional support.
This is more difficult to do in an online learning environment. During periods of online
education, school will be aware of some students with whom they must maintain closer
contact (including students with additional educational needs, such as those with dyslexia,
attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, etc.). But it is important that all students are clearly
informed of who to contact inside or outside the school if they are struggling. In this time of
COVID-19 it is also likely students will be anxious and some may also lose loved ones or
have family and friends who are seriously ill. As soon as a school is aware of this, it is
important they immediately reach out to the student (probably via the school’s counselling
support unit, or similar) and provide the appropriate support and professional referrals
needed.
To conclude, online environments offer tremendous educational opportunities during times
when it is difficult for students to attend school in person. At the same time, there can be
significant barriers to learning if poor quality online instruction is delivered. The five
considerations presented here provide a means by which schools and teachers can develop
and deliver online learning to optimize their students’ learning.
I wish all educators and students the very best.
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... It is challenging to develop content that covers the curriculum and engages students [16]. Martin [18] suggests that instruction, content, motivation, relationships, and mental health are the five essential things an educator must keep in mind while imparting online education. When teachers are not adequately equipped with the technology and instructional practices, they have difficulty adjusting to their new duties of supporting student learning online, which influences student preparedness and engagement with online learning, such as online participation and interaction [16]. ...
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