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Remote Learning and Digital Equity: Best Practices

digital equity
(Image credit: Future)

Tech & Learning talks with Diane Doersch and Kali Alford of Digital Promise about remote learning and digital equity.  

Diane W. Doersch is technical project director at Verizon Innovative Learning Schools and Digital Promise

Kali Alford is associate director of professional learning, Verizon Innovative Learning Schools and Digital Promise.

Equity now is an active consideration for educators immersed in remote learning. Thanks to COVID-19, educators should not assume that all students face comparable challenges in terms of being prepared for the school day. The unique challenges and responsibilities that students face at home need to be considered when designing learning activities, assessing mastery, and in the way learning support is made available.

Below is the full conversation

What are some best practices teachers should be thinking about with digital equity and remote learning? 

Alford: Getting rid of busy work. As many district leaders were trying to find solutions to the equity gap as it pertains to technology and access, their knee-jerk reaction was to put together and distribute paper packets to parents and students, and then find a way for the parents to return the completed work so that students can have some measure of accountability and instruction. But really, worksheets, graphic organizers, and things of that nature have minimal impact to the learning experience.  

This is an opportunity for teachers to push the needle a bit, to make sure that they’re not just giving these uniform assignments that can be easily Googled, but to really dig deep and put a level of rigor into these assignments. 

With many students facing limited access, educators need to make sure that the amount of time to complete assignments is ample for everyone. 

Another best practice is to use this as an opportunity to have some dialogue with students. One of the best tools any educator can have in their toolbox is a good rapport with their students. That’s something that will help you year over year, whether those students are in your classroom or not. Inevitably you’re going to have a conversation with a colleague who’s asking you, ‘What kind of things can I do with this one student?’ We’ve all had a student or subset of students who are a challenge for us--no fault of the student, we just have to refine our approaches. 

Doersch: As we think about equitable practices, allow students to show that they learned. For example, maybe a teacher has students read a few chapters in a book and wants a reflection or some sort of analysis. Well, the teacher could have the student write a two-page paper--hard to do on Mom’s phone--or maybe they can do something like Flipgrid, in which they can record a video of their reaction and then it’s stored in the cloud very simply and easily. So allowing students to use the resources they have available to them. 

Another best practice for students’ self-agency is allowing them to say, ‘Hey, I want to use these tools to do that thing.’ It helps a student take better charge of their learning and it’s not the teacher dictating things. 

Another thing I saw is a teacher saying, ‘Well, in my district, we’re not allowed to teach new things,’ so she’s having students go back to their digital work and reflect upon that work. They’re looking at why they came up with an idea, what were some hardships, what did they like best, if they had to do it again, what would they do differently. 

Those are all self-agency techniques that are also life skills our kids are going to need because when we were in the classroom face-to-face, there was this push to just get assignments done, and maybe not enough intention put toward quality. Now, allowing time for quality and reflections, and a few days to master a few tasks, is not a bad thing. 

Alford: I often talk to teachers about the idea of embedded assessments, and I’ll use analogies such as video games, where there are many different kinds of assessments for a player--the score is there, depending on the game, maybe there’s a clock or a health bar, progression meters--and those things help them stay engaged. 

In this time, when you don’t have the face-to-face component with your students, an embedded assessment would be a great resource. 

It doesn’t have to be anything too involved; it could be as simple as a gallery of work that has been submitted and graded. We give back work and give students grades, but they don’t always have an opportunity to compare what they did to what another student did, to assess themselves versus their peers. 

If you’re using an online platform, an LMS, Google Classroom, etc., you can take a student’s graded work with your feedback and post it in a place where other students can see and compare it. ‘Oh, this looks really good. I should’ve done that. Next time, I’ll now.’ Or, ‘I never would’ve thought to use that tool.’ That’s a great opportunity for learning as well. 

Doersch: Another thing school might want to consider: E-Rate has allowed us to update and modernize the infrastructure we have in schools. Many schools have purchased exterior access points that can be mounted outside, say around a parking lot, and can provide access to the school’s network. Kids can have their parents drive them to the school, and by staying in the car, can maintain the six-foot social isolation distance and get access. 

Using the resources that we have--because there’s not going to be a lot of new hardware coming out in the next few months--it might be good to repurpose old equipment. For example, if you have an old phone, can you use it as a hotspot? There are a lot of things like that which can be done as well. 

*More from T&L: Remote Learning and Digital Equity: Challenges and Opportunities 

More best practices from Digital Promise

Check access. Don’t assume that all students have continual access to WiFi as some may only have it at times. Also don’t assume that students have more than one internet-enabled device in the home--in many cases, even if they do, devices are often used by more than one person in a home and may need to be shared. Remember that when students or families say they have the internet at home, they may just be talking about Mom’s smartphone. Be sure to define what internet access means when you survey families regarding resources available. 

Flexible scheduling. Don’t assume that students are able to submit or complete work in accordance to a daily schedule. As there are too many variables involved, expecting that students can complete remote learning assignments within 24 hours may be too optimistic. Maintaining this expectation may create undue pressure on students that could, in turn, cause them to disengage with class or school. In the same regard, give students extra time and opportunities for reflection upon work they have already done. Know when to use synchronous and when to use asynchronous learning. Assigning asynchronous activities can provide flexibility in a student’s day, especially important for students with limited internet access. 

(Re)define classwork. Busywork has only provided minimal benefits to learners and as a component of distance learning, provides even less. Take a moment to rethink the purpose of assignments, perhaps imagine yourself answering the all-too-common question, “Why do I need to learn this?” Instead, design learning experiences that are rooted in inquiry or authenticity. In these unprecedented times, teachers will be vying for students’ attention like never before and more robust learning experiences is a great means of keeping students engaged.

Employ situational awareness. Group Zoom conferences can amplify equity issues by asking students to open a camera that exposes less-than-ideal living conditions. Remember, students need access to the internet, hardware, and parental permission to participate, and not all may have those items.

Free expression. Allow students to show what they’ve learned in different ways so they may use the resources available to them. For example: a video reaction to a chapter is easier to do on a smartphone vs. having them try to type a one-page paper on a smartphone.

Mental health checks. Take time to check in with your students and their SEL needs. A short survey form students fill out a few times a week can help you learn about what their needs may be during this time.

Create connections. A school district can act as a resource by connecting families to internet service providers or telecommunications companies who are offering free Internet during this time. Districts can also share businesses that may have outdoor Wi-fi where students could work (keeping safe distance from others, such as from the family car).

Some rules still apply. Such as when you’re in your classroom, make sure all content you use with students comes from a culturally responsive lens. Choose activities that benefit all students, not just a select few who may have the learning resources at their fingertips. Use activities and examples that reflect the faces of your students. Observe which online activities or resources are most liked by your students.

*More from T&L: How Parents Can Participate in Remote Learning