Marshall Cavendish Education

Getting the Balance Right for Online,
Remote Learning

Sep 18, 2020

What do we know about the relative value of different online options and also about the necessary balance between activities during online, remote learning for school students learning from home?

To answer these questions, we can draw on at least four sources of information and data.

  1. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that any notion of an evolving ‘science’ (a research base) for the impact of online delivery on student learning in the current situation is very much a work-in-progress. There is very little about which we can be certain.
  2. Secondly, the current response from schools and education systems to delivering online, remote learning is such a dynamic and rapid reaction to circumstances that there is little, if any, opportunity for substantial research currently, but there are lots of observations and anecdotes.
  3. However, and thirdly, there is a significant body of research that pre-dates the pandemic, and which provides important background on the impact of digital technologies on learning, even though it sometimes contains inconsistent findings or ambiguities.
  4. Finally, there is a vast body of research on mind, brain, and education science (‘neuroscience for education’) upon which we can confidently depend to be expertly and reliably informed.

One key question becomes “which is more appropriate, ‘live’ online lessons or pre-recorded videos” and can tasks be completed independently, with teachers checking in at a later time?”

I think the initial consideration is an appreciation that, essentially, we are all ‘flying blind’ much of the time when it comes to online, remote learning.

Yes, there certainly are many online packages and programmes that have been commercially and non-commercially developed, that are rich in content, and have been used by many schools and for a long period of time. That said, there is limited research to confirm their effectiveness. While vendors cite improvements in student performance in support of their products, independent expert research suggests these improvements are more marginal, and are often short-lived. So, the jury is still out on much of the technology’s real value for deep and sustained learning.

What we do know, is that students, particularly young students, often struggle to be engaged with their learning at school. The recent NSW Gonski Institute survey highlighted this. It seems student preoccupation with, and time-spent on, devices has reduced their ability to concentrate and to sustain engagement. This means, whatever is delivered in normal classrooms, but much more importantly what is delivered online, must be engaging, varied, well-targeted, well-planned and consistent with what we know about how students learn.

Therefore, I don’t think it is as much a question of ‘either, or’ but more one of how much of each, or in other words, what should be the mix of content and style?

I think it is easiest to deal first with pre-recorded videos. Research does support the view that the audio-visual nature of videos is consistent with the concept of neurological “dual-coding”. It is contended that people on average remember about 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, and 50% of what they hear and see. If this is accurate, videos provide an important resource for learning. Obviously, it pivots on the quality of the video, and how well-targeted it is for the audience. Certainly, I for one would suggest that this at the core of Sesame Street’s success. So yes, well-targeted and high-quality videos are probably good for kids. It is further argued that older students benefit from the ability to ‘stop-start’ and rewind instructional videos, because they can pace the delivery to match there learning speed, or pre-existing knowledge. This also makes good sense.

It seems likely, but the research is either slim or non-existent, that if teachers skilfully prepare video lessons where they feature as the instructor, some or all of the benefits listed above could apply. One additional benefit of pre-recorded instruction is that it remains of consistent quality, and can include intrinsically interesting audio-visual content to boost viewer engagement.

Some of the downsides of videos – both commercial and teacher-developed – include:

  • If overused, they are likely to lose their impact
  • They are ‘impersonal’, especially if they are non-interactive. Current research emphasises the risks associated with students feeling disengaged from their learning, and from school. Anxious, unhappy, and disengaged students do not learn well, or at all.
  • Young and old students have recorded in surveys that they spend long hours on their devices and teachers report students are diffcult to motivate (perhaps because of this) and certainly perform worse in class or during homework if they are multi-tasking on devices. Watching videos that do not ‘demand attention’ may suffer from the same fate.

So, the case for “live” online lessons?

Clearly, research suggests that there are many benefits from teachers engaging directly with students, albeit virtually. Some of these would include:

  • The teacher, if effective, is more likely to engage and motivate students who are interacting ‘face-to-face’
  • Teachers can ask questions and emphasise key points dynamically – both techniques we know reinforce learning
  • If using the chat facility, teachers can undertake the all-important strategy of strategically asking and inviting questions
  • If using the voting functions of software, teachers can dynamically, and in real time, monitor and assess student comprehension of content and key concepts
  • Students in the face-to-face situation, are (hopefully) less inclined to drift away to another device to be texting while listening, because research certainly shows that ‘multi-tasking’ (or more correctly, ‘task-switching’) degrades student comprehension, recall, memory development, and understanding.
  • For younger students, the “real live”, and familiar face of their teacher helps to address the serious concern about students feeling detached, isolated, and even unsupported.

Research also shows we only learn when we can link new knowledge to our existing knowledge. So, in both pre-recorded and live online instruction, the content must ensure it draws as many connections as possible between the new content and what can accurately be predicted to be likely pre-existing knowledge in the student audience. Live interaction is likely to be able to do this more effectively.

Turning now to the question of balance, one conspicuous development in the research and discussion about current remote teaching and learning is the mix between ‘synchronous’ and ‘asynchronous’ learning, and how both are structured across a day, and a week. Added to this, teachers need to consider what balance they seek to achieve between digital and non-digital periods of learning. In other words, a broader question is not which type of digital-based instruction to use, but how much of either to use?

An associated consideration is the extent to which students are expected to ‘research’ work on their own and how well scaffolded this work is. Research suggests that digitally delivered instruction that precedes student-based research work must make very clear to students what they need to know, what is required of them to do next, how they should go about it, and where they will find what they need. Research does tell us that unaided, many students falter and fail in independent learning tasks. It exacerbates the learning and achievement divide among students. This suggests that in addition to a good dose of online instruction, teachers need to ensure students are supported in their learning needs by strategies such as explanatory notes via email, providing them with a weekly (or more frequent) one-on-one discussion with the teacher which should focus on both learning and well-being, as they are inseparable, and the opportunity for students to ask questions, online during the lesson, or through chat, or through the opportunity to email questions to the teacher after the lesson. Irrespective of the precise content and even mode of online delivery, observation and current research through surveys, emphasises the importance of maintaining remotely the personal engagement and attention between student and teacher that is present in the normal classroom situation.

A further consideration, which I think is so infrequently stressed, is the duration of sessions provided. Research on retention during a learning episode provides critical advice to teachers for structuring and pacing lessons, online and then again in the classroom. Research shows there are two ‘prime’ times for learning. The first is at the beginning of the session, the second at the end. In between, there is the ‘down-time’. Learning instruction design must conform to this understanding if it is to maximise the prime learning times. In addition, long periods of learning will include up to a third of the period as ‘down-time’ and this grows as a percentage with longer sessions. Instructional sessions therefore should avoid long periods, such as 80 minute sessions.

Additionally, research by institutions such as the American Academy of Paediatrics highlights areas about which we need to be concerned in relation to device usage and screen-time, such as sedentary behaviour of teenagers leading to obesity, the total amount of time spent by young people on devices of all kinds, disturbed sleep impacting memory retention, threats of online bullying, and the negative impacts of multi-tasking. These findings reinforce the importance of a balanced and varied structure to the day involving online, remote learning, a mix of synchronous and asynchronous time, and a balance between digital and non-digital learning activities.

And remembering that learning only occurs when students are engaged, feel safe, secure, supported and valued – the digital week needs a good solid dose of personalised time where students understand everyone is struggling with the new not-so-normal, and it is ok to make mistakes and sometimes to struggle with tasks delivered online.

This article is written by Peter Adams, Global Director of The Balanced Scorecard for Schools Programme at Marshall Cavendish Education.

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