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Distance learning – Your school can do it, but how well?

Post-COVID, schools can now deploy distance learning when needed – but as Nik Peachey explains, there’s basic provision and then there’s good provision…

Nik Peachey
by Nik Peachey
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I’ve worked with schools in a number of countries during COVID. The schools and teachers who have excelled the most are those who readily accepted and embraced remote technology, and the new ways of teaching and learning it affords.

Schools in Turkey, for example, have been open to EdTech’s potential for some time, with their management fully behind it, and were thus well prepared for lockdown learning. India has also surprised me with how well adapted they were to teaching with technology, given the often huge issues with internet connectivity in some parts of the country.

The way in which schools have viewed this period has made a huge difference on whether they’ve succeeded or failed. Those who saw it as a strictly temporary measure, who were waiting to ‘get back to normal’, would often find themselves treading water and delivering lacklustre content – uploading teacher-created classroom materials and worksheets for students to download, fill in and upload again once completed. That’s not a good approach.

Schools that adopted a longer-term view, however, were the ones who saw as an opportunity to move into the future. They looked at developing new content specifically designed for online delivery, but this often requires training.

If you want to be able to deliver online learning that properly engages students, gets them working together and isn’t just a delivery mechanism for worksheets, it’s necessary to invest in appropriate teacher support. They’ll need to know how to use a Learning Management System effectively, and how to get the best out of it.

While many schools now regularly use an LMS of some kind, a number have been notoriously bad at using them to their full potential, or even for their intended purpose – namely online course delivery and creating real-time interaction.

How can teachers improve?

When they’re teaching via webcam, one of the most disappointing things I’ve seen is the number of teachers who are just sitting there, though it’s not only teachers who do this.

The same is often true of other professionals presenting at online conferences or delivering online training – doing so while seated in a dark room, crouched over their laptop with a pair of poor-quality headphones and giving no thought to the visual impact their personal presentation can have.

Teachers are really, really good at interpersonal skills and building relationships with students in the classroom. That’s done through your physical presence, the way you use your voice, the way you use your body, and the way you address students. But those skills aren’t being used online.

One of my main tips would therefore be to stand up. Get a riser for your laptop so that the screen is parallel to your body – that way, the camera won’t distort the picture. Then, stand back from the screen, about a metre, even if you need to use a Bluetooth headset or an extension cable for your headphones.

When you look at yourself on screen, you want to be able to see from just above the top of your head to just below your elbows. This immediately allows you to start using body language – you can use your hands, and you’ll have room to move in towards the camera to emphasise certain things, before stepping away again.

Contrary to what you might think, standing up can also stop you from feeling fatigued. Many people will admit to feeling tired after sitting in front of a camera for a while, but by standing up you can make yourself feel more dynamic, alert and energetic. Related to that, quite a few teachers will have dealt with students who refuse to even turn their camera on – so give them more of a reason to tune in. They can learn a lot about visual communication skills from seeing you do it well.

Some of the training I’ve done with teachers has specifically focussed on helping them set up activities with some visual aspect to them, which will require students to turn their cameras on and perform certain tasks in front of the camera.

How can students improve?

The success or otherwise of online learning obviously isn’t all down to teachers, though, given that students don’t always put themselves in the best position to learn online.

When receiving lessons via a smartphone or laptop, some students take this to mean that they can be anywhere they please, even if it’s a location not particularly conducive to good learning. As many will have discovered for themselves, however, when you’re part of a shared online class, any background noise at all can have an impact on everyone involved.

In many cases, what’s been missing isn’t teacher training, but rather learner training. Pupils haven’t always been prepped on how to change their home environments to make them more suitable for learning, when there are lots of basic adjustments that can really help them make the most of their surrounding space.

Some adjustments might seem obvious, but they can often be things people won’t naturally intuit. These might include how the computer is set up; the furniture configuration of the room the student’s working in; and access to good sound equipment, particularly a headset to avoid room echo that might disturb others in the class.

Students will also need to maximise their internet connection, by making sure there aren’t multiple devices using it during the lesson where possible, and that their proximity to the router will provide them with the best connection they can get. These are all simple steps that can make a huge difference.

5 strategies for teaching online

1 | Stand up

Be standing while you teach and give some thought to your body language. Where possible, use a wireless Bluetooth headset to give yourself better freedom of movement.

2 | Make space

Make sure you can move around. Throughout, be conscious about the nature of your presentation, your body’s movements and how you’re coming across in front of the camera.

3 | Talk to teachers

Get in touch with other teachers and share your experiences – both the successes and failures, and you’re all coping. This needn’t just include colleagues within you’re school, of course; there’s plenty of helpful support and advice to found online.

4 | Get social

Add an element of socialisation to your classes. You’re students don’t just come to school to learn – school also enables them to make friends, build relationships and learn important social skills. If you can, let your students have some kind of structured ‘socialisation time’, where there isn’t a focus on learning, so they can just chat together for five minutes or so.

5 | Start a diary

Start recording what’s happening and your experiences of remote teaching. Write about them, consider posting them to a blog and read what other teachers have gone through themselves – many of your peers will have faced similar issues themselves and come up with great solutions.

Nik Peachey is an educational technology consultant, teacher, trainer and author, who runs Peachey Publications; for more information, visit or follow @NikPeachey.

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