Distance learning and teaching: between need and effectiveness

By Mahmoud Omrah GM, Arab International Academy

Monday، 29 June 2020 12:50 AM

In an attempt to contain the coronavirus, many countries around the world have closed their educational institutions and opted for distance learning and teaching, relying on the Internet, in specific, and many other means of technology. 
It is notable that, despite the crisis, educational institutions have been quite determined to proceed with the learning process. This can be attributed to their need to ensure the continuity of learning and engage the students with beneficial learning activities, which help alleviate the negative psychological and social impact they may face during their stay at home. 
Nowhere in the current circumstances is the question, “Which is better: distance or classroom learning?”. The logical question is, “How do we teach remotely in an effective way that ensures the utmost benefit for each age group and the least burden on all stakeholders?”.
There is no doubt that educational institutions that had implemented e-learning before the crisis will be more prepared to switch to distance learning as their teachers and students are accustomed to using online platforms for learning, both inside and outside the classroom.
The first thing to consider when planning distance learning practices is the type of digital tools that can be used to facilitate such a transformation. Of course, these platforms are numerous, and the majority of them serve the same purpose. However, it is worth noting that in rural regions that lack technology infrastructure, schools may opt for printed learning materials. The use of such platforms facilitates direct communication between the teacher and the students. Besides, they provide the former with a virtual space to explain lessons and conduct learning activities, allowing participants to interact collectively with one another. It is also possible to record these direct meetings so that the student can refer back to them when needed. 
Another option is to provide detailed lessons on specific online platforms, which include learning objectives, activities, references, learning materials and assignments. The learners will carry out the assigned tasks, each at a time that suits them, provided they turn in their assignments by the due date.
Direct and remote meetings often go hand in hand with the previous method, providing teachers with an opportunity to answer questions related to lessons, explain assignments and perhaps review the learning material.
Undoubtedly, the successful use of those methods necessitates continuous training programmes for teachers to develop the competencies they need for using technology, which include planning, teaching methods, developing appropriate material and assessing. Moreover, distance teaching requires a great deal of precision in determining the learning outcomes and designing specific learning activities that will help the learner achieve these objectives. Added to that, teachers need to carefully create tasks to assess the performance of the learner and the extent to which they could meet those learning outcomes.
If we assume that teachers have been able to adapt to the rapid transformation of teaching methods by developing the necessary skills and competencies to teach remotely, we will still need to question the readiness of the learner to participate in this learning process and achieve the desired outcomes. 
First, we must bear in mind that our ultimate goal is to ensure that students are learning; therefore, we should not confuse learning with instruction, as teachers may do their best to teach, while students may only manage to learn very little. 
In terms of learners’ skills in technology, there is no reason to worry. Most students, young or old, do have these skills, and with some simple training, they can overcome any difficulties they may face in this regard. 
In my opinion, the challenge here is whether students are equipped with the necessary learning skills. Students need to have an intrinsic motivation to learn as well as the ability to organise, manage their time and communicate effectively. It seems to me that, regardless of this current situation, we need our students to develop these skills, which are essential and necessary for their success in studies, work, family and social life. 
It may be helpful if every educational institution assesses its students’ acquisition of these skills and designs plans to develop them in the future. We need to plan learning activities to develop these skills, just like we do with academic skills, and that requires a long time and considerable effort. 
There is no doubt that there exists a wide range of learning needs and abilities in this area. Therefore, parents of those students who lack those skills will face challenges in helping their children pursue their learning from a distance. Moreover, the fact that some of these students lack intrinsic motivation will leave their parents with no choice but to monitor them, which would be an extra burden on the parents. 
Accordingly, I believe that there are no standard recipes for educational institutions to use in distance learning. In fact, they should consider several factors to determine the method they need to follow. These factors include age, technology infrastructure, readiness of teachers,
students’ learning skills and level of parental support at home. It may, therefore, be appropriate for an educational institution to implement this model of learning to proceed normally with the learning/ teaching process. In contrast, another institution may do so to maintain some sort of connection with the students and engage them in activities not necessarily linked to the curriculum, but rather to alleviate the social and psychological effects that may result from staying at home.
However, in order for this process to achieve its desired benefits and not turn into a nightmare for students, parents, or teachers, the following is recommended be taken into account.

Schools are required to:

* Plan a light schedule of live sessions in order not to overload the students or the parents, especially at the beginning. The schedule can be gradually enriched to provide students with various digital learning materials and tasks that suit their learning styles and needs. Students can perform these tasks according to their own pace.

* Organise regular teachers’ meetings to exchange expertise and develop teaching practices.
* Organise ongoing professional development training, which aims to prepare teachers for planning, teaching and assessing the performance of their students.
* Follow student absences and discuss with parents the reasons for the student’s absences to provide possible support and assistance.
* Set up realistic remote learning objectives.
* Provide students with a variety of activities to choose from and perform independently and at their own pace.
* Raise students’ awareness of the coronavirus and the lockdown through purposeful learning activities.
* Develop organisation, communication, thinking and research skills.
* Develop post-crisis plans to measure and bridge the learning gaps when the school reopens.

Parents are required to:

* Build a physical space at home intended for learning and involve the child in making this decision.

* Prepare their children for online lessons.
* Motivate their children to study, do assignments, and assist them in organising their study hours.
* Communicate directly with the teacher regarding any questions, remarks or suggestions.
* Remain positive in case their child fails to meet their educational goals and communicate with the teacher in this regard to consider implementing supplementary activities.
* Carry out fun activities with their children during the day and arrange online meetings with their friends.

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