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Remote Learning Communication: How to Best Connect with Students

remote learning communication
(Image credit: iStock/AndreyPopov)

Have you ever heard a song and not quite understood the lyrics? A couple of years ago I watched Tom Murray from Future Ready Schools give a keynote on the importance of communication. During his talk, he played some famous songs with misheard lyrics. Songs with lyrics like “We built this city on sausage rolls” from Jefferson Starship, or “Sweet dreams are made of cheese” by the Eurythmics are just a few examples of times when we might hear something different than what is being actually said.

Communication is the same way. 

We tell people one thing and they might hear something completely different. This happens a lot in face-to-face conversations, but now that we’ve been forced into isolation and remote learning, communication is limited to text, voice, and the occasional video chat. We have all been dumped into this 24/7 online learning experiment at the same time. Meanwhile, companies are stepping up to provide access to their resources for free during this crisis, albeit for a limited time.

Being inundated with tools to communicate with our remote learners has been both a blessing and a curse. Many educators, while extremely adaptable, have been thrust into this remote learning world without all the tools (both hardware and software) needed to properly transition to online learning. Parents and students are often overwhelmed by the number of options and log-ins involved. IT directors worry about what kind of data is being given away to these “free” resources and about the best ways to deploy and service devices remotely. School and district leaders are scrambling to help families without access and devices and hoping that nothing inappropriate is inadvertently recorded or shared.

With all of these variables and a compressed time frame, the importance of communication has been magnified. Communicating timelines, expectations, and support for our learners and families while acknowledging that they, too, are going through a rapid transition is critical. Now more than ever, we must make sure the lyrics are clearly understood. 

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Remote Learning Communication: Main Components 

  • Consistency 
  • Clear expectations
  • Schedule
  • Tools
  • Supporting social-emotional learning  

Consistency 

Communicating a clear and consistent message through times of crisis and displacement can do wonders for a community. While our worlds may have been turned upside-down, our families, staff, and students long for some sense of normalcy. Making sure leaders and teachers provide consistent communication can help stabilize and provide structure for the at-home learning day. 

Clear expectations 

Just as you want to be consistent with communications, you also want to make sure that parents and staff have clear expectations around the learning that’s taking place. Many staff members are also now home-schooling their kids and balancing that with their work as teachers. Clear expectations ensure that everyone stays on the same page. 

Many schools have embraced the idea of virtual “office hours” for teachers. In this scenario, the parent and student are told what times the teacher is available for help during the school day. Support can come from a quick email exchange or through the communication app of your choice, but the expected turnaround time (2 hours, 1 day, etc.) should also be communicated so that everyone involved has clear and reasonable expectations. 

Schedule 

Our students are used to a regular schedule of learning. Now that those schedules have been thrown out the window, parents and schools are scrambling to establish a “learning schedule.” Teachers and leaders can help promote this by communicating on a regular basis and at the same time each day. This could mean a principal sending a morning assembly-like video every morning, for example, or a teacher leaving a personal message for his or her students on Mondays and Wednesdays.

A set schedule of communication can also help parents with the deluge of information they receive at home. If the district, school, and teacher all send information at random times throughout the week, their messages are likely to get lost in the shuffle. Leaders should encourage staff to sync when they’re sending communication and to keep in mind the cognitive load of those on the receiving.

Tools 

The standard tools of email and phone calls are the bare minimum when it comes to communication. Social media can be an ally now that many parents spend more time on Facebook than ever before. If you decide to use an educational communication platform instead of a standard one, make sure that staff are consistent with its use. 

For example, nothing is more frustrating to parents than receiving one message from their child’s teacher in Remind and then seeing the same message again in Google Classroom or Bloomz. Now throw in the various forms of video chat (Skype, Hangouts, Zoom, etc.) and you can see why failing to designate one tool for communication could lead to much frustration. Pick one and be consistent!

Yet another layer of communication is involved when you throw in things such as virtual collaboration and the distribution and retrieval of student work. Many school districts have a learning management system (LMS) that offer communication with parents about the distribution of materials. Google Classroom, Canvas, Seesaw, and Schoology seem to be the dominant players in this arena, but there are certainly others. Again, consistency is key: school and district leaders need to make sure that all staff are using the same LMS tool to keep things streamlined at home and to reduce the complexity of support needed from IT.

Some district leaders have employed a few simple techniques to make access easier. One is designating a portal or single interface that students can use to access all their work. Tools such as ClassLink, Clever, or RapidIdentity provide single-interface portals that offer students one sign-on access to all of their approved applications. 

Schools without a single portal should consider sending parents a “cheat sheet” for their child’s usernames and passwords for the various applications that they might be accessing during extended distance learning. 

Supporting social-emotional learning 

We’re all in a state of distress. For some families that distress is more extreme than it is for others. Remember that people must feel stable and safe in order to be able to learn. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs over Bloom’s taxonomy. Having consistent communication and uniform tools help reduce some of the stress, but it’s also important to check in with students about their well-being.

Connecting with students through video can be a powerful way of supporting their social-emotional needs. Some teachers send a daily morning video just to check in with students and prepare them for the day’s assignments. Education leaders can post a “joke of the day” or brain twister to lighten the cognitive load while maintaining the connection between school and home. A student who feels this kind of support from school as well as from home will be much more likely to engage in learning.

Questions to Consider Regarding Remote Learning Communication

Here are few questions to think about as you consider how you communicate with your schools and community as well as how you distribute work: 

  • How will students and parents access the communication? 
  • Is communication integrated consistently with a current tool?
  • Do teachers use multiple tools or a single common tool for communication? 
  • How will work be distributed for those who don’t have access?
  • What expectations in terms of schedule and time of day have been communicated?   

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Using Video for Remote Learning Communication 

  • Hardware
  • Room setup and lighting 
  • Best practices
  • Video platforms

Almost instantly, video conference software has become one of the stars of this pandemic and the go-to communication platform for everyone. Schools hold faculty meetings via Zoom or Microsoft Teams to make sure staff are staying in sync. Teachers use it to connect synchronously with their students for real-time instruction. 

However, just as there are best practices for online learning, there are also best practices for video communications. 

Hardware 

As most districts were caught unprepared in terms of distributing devices, many end-users are often left with whatever they happen to have at home. Luckily, most tablets and laptops come with a built-in front-facing camera, which eliminates the need for an external camera. 

For those users looking for better image quality, here are a few external camera options for less than $100:

Microsoft LifeCam Studio—$75 from TigerDirect

Logitech C922 Pro Stream—$99 from Office Depot

Razer Kiyo (with built-in ring light)—$99 from Razer

Sound quality is also very important if you’re creating video content or trying to hold virtual conversations. Having faulty or bad audio can actually be more distracting to a learner than poor video quality, so if you have to choose, opt for better audio quality.  

Using the built-in laptop or phone microphone can be fine, but AirPods or a plug-in microphone/headset usually offer better quality. 

Professional podcast producer Errol St. Clair Smith, from the BAM Radio Network, offers a couple of suggestions: 

USB Microphone Kit —$55 on Amazon

Blue Yeti USB microphone —$129 on Amazon 

Room setup and lighting 

We’ve all watched those videos in which you can barely see a person or the person talking sounds like they’re in an echo chamber. The truth is, most of us don’t have the luxury of setting up a recording or video studio in our house. 

That said, here are a few tips to improve your video and audio quality when recording or live-broadcasting to your students or staff:

- Make sure you’re in a small, quiet room. This will reduce echoes and distracting noises. A closet works but has poor lighting. A bathroom usually has great lighting, but watch out for echoes.

- When considering lighting, try to avoid any type of bright backlight, such as sitting in front of a sunny window, as it will cast your face into shadow. Setting up with a plain wall, door, or dark curtain behind you can help reduce backlight. Front lighting can be done with a ring light or even a nice overhead light or lamp. Avoid spotlights, as they cast shadows and can make it hard for you to see. Outside natural light is great, just watch out for ambient noise.

Best practices and pitfalls 

While some educators had experience with video conference software or webinars before this pandemic, others may have no idea what to expect. 

Here are a few best practices that don’t cost a penny and will increase the quality of your video connections.

- Professional dress—While no one is getting dressed up for work now that we’re all at home, it’s important to present yourself to your students and staff in a professional manner. This doesn’t mean business formal, but certainly business casual (on the top half of your body) can present a more professional image. 

- Limit interruptions—Many of us have kids and pets (or both!) that demand our attention. They often seem to need that attention when we’re recording or doing a live broadcast. If at all possible, try to reduce potential disruptions before you start. If you’re recording for later use, disruptions can be edited out, but editing does make the process of sharing your video a little more time-consuming and complicated.

- Check your security settings—The phrase “Zoom-bombing” has emerged in the past several weeks. This refers to random people on the internet jumping into open, public Zoom calls and posting inappropriate messages or images. Most platforms have settings that require video conference attendees to have a link, a log-in, or even a simple password. Michael Cohen, a.k.a. TheTechRabbi, has a great video on how to go from a Zoom novice to pro in less than 10 minutes.

- Video length—If you’re recording something for your students, know that a 50-minute lecture can be challenging for a student to watch. Keep your video segments short (5–10 minutes) and focused on a specific topic or project. Live instruction and virtual office hours should also be limited to between 30 and 60 minutes, as students need time to work. Being forced to watch a teacher lecture live online can be a problem—particularly if a student has limited access or learning time. 

- Watch your background—Platforms such as Zoom allow you to create a false background. These can be fun, but also distracting. Some teachers have even created backgrounds that mimic the classroom, which can be comforting to students. One potential pitfall while doing live video is that sometimes unexpected guests can walk behind you. Warn people in your house when you’re online so they know it may not be the best time to check the laundry without any pants on!

- Student privacy and usage—As we dive into the tools in the next section, please be aware that many might not be COPPA compliant (not permitted for kids under 13). An entire manual could be written on student privacy and video chat software. Using district-provided software that has been vetted by your IT department will help avoid any violations, and giving students the option to “opt out” of interactive video calls can also help. Students can also choose not to enable their cameras as a measure to avoid any unintended video capture.

Video Platforms 

Many of the available video options are offering free options for educators, but be aware that some of those free trials may not last until the end of the school year. 

Another word of caution: Some of these tools require a log-in for student access. Parents will have to help set these up initially for the youngest students who don’t have an email account,

Here are the top video options that educators around the country are using:

Zoom—The early winner when it comes to go-to solutions for schools to do some form of video conferencing, Zoom is fairly easy to install and works well on mobile devices. The free account for education is fairly generous and the 40-minute limit has been lifted for K–12 schools during the COVID-19 crisis. Premium paid packages can allow for up to 1,000 users. Other bonuses include fun backgrounds that you can import and the ability to break out users into teams for facilitated group discussion. Being a frontrunner in the video conference category also means it has been getting a lot of attention for negative usage as well. New users who haven’t set proper security settings have been hit by hackers posting inappropriate imaging (“Zoom-bombing”). In response, Zoom has tightened security by requiring all meetings to use a password.  

Google Hangouts Meet—Those schools that have GSuite already in their district can take advantage of Google’s video-conferencing solution. The free version that comes native with GSuite can be used almost immediately with little or no setup. Simply share the link with students or embed it in your calendar invitation. Adding on the Meet Grid View extension can make it easier to manage when you have more than five users online simultaneously. Another nice bonus feature is the ability to turn on live captions when people are talking. This blog by Jennie Magiera does a nice job of explaining all that Google is currently offering to education.

Microsoft Teams—This product is also free and you don’t necessarily need to be an Office 365 school to use it. The paid version is also very moderately priced and its integration with other Microsoft products like Word, PowerPoint, and OneNote make it appealing for those who regularly work in the Microsoft suite of tools. 

Flipgrid—One of the newest members of the Microsoft family, Flipgrid hit the ground running a couple of years ago in education and hasn’t looked back. While it’s the only one on this list that doesn’t have synchronous video communication, teachers and students find its ease of use to be extremely appealing. This free product allows teachers to create video discussion walls, or grids, on various topics. Some bonuses include controls for the teacher on time limits and allowing emojis. Newer features, such as the whiteboard, allow teachers and students to record themselves drawing responses rather than just filming themselves. Flipgrid also integrates with multiple other platforms and tech tools that you can check out in their disco library.

Skype—Another company now owned by Microsoft, Skype was one of the first players to offer video chat and conference software. While it has many of the same features as other video tools, Skype also offers a large platform of educational resources, including on-demand events, Mystery Skypes, and home-learning guides for parents and educators.

Webex—While not as intuitive as Skype or Zoom, Webex does have a strong network, backed by Cisco, which means better quality video and less lag. The free version has some limitations (e.g., it allows only one presenter), but the company recently announced that the pro version is free for schools during this shutdown.  

Questions To Consider Regarding Remote Learning Video Communication

  • How will my end-users be accessing these tools? 
  • What about those students without access? 
  • How much setup and installation is involved?
  • Does the tool integrate with my existing platforms? 
  • Will students have to log in to use the tool?  

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