Effective remote learning: six keys to success

Remote learning may be with us longer than expected. Hamish Mackenzie unpicks ways to make it better for both staff and learners

Author details

Hamish Mackenzie is founder of Digital Resilience UK, an agency that supports schools with digital strategy and online safety. He also works part-time as Director of Digital Strategy at the...

Schools around the world have had to pivot their traditional approach towards remote learning. Hybrid approaches, where some pupils are present while others are at home, could be an additional challenge.

Successful approaches to remote learning focus on people rather than the technology

This article focuses on technology-enabled solutions to remote learning, in particular live lessons (synchronous). Many schools have adopted asynchronous or paper-based type approaches due to financial or technological barriers. However, most UK schools are providing some level of digital provision.

So, what can be learnt from the experiences around the world on the most effective methods for remote learning? Here are my top tips.

1. Pick the best tools for your context and keep it simple

There are many platforms, computers, tablets and software that will claim to be a ‘fix-all’ solution. Whether it is iPads, Chromebooks, Zoom, Teams, Twinkl, Showbie or Oak National Academy, the key to success is finding a solution that fits the context of the school, the confidence of staff and the communication with parents and children on expectations for engagement.

Once the initial excitement of change passes, which tools will be sustainable and keep pupils engaged and progressing with their learning? Teachers need to understand the logistics of running an online lesson (where the mute button is!) and the safeguarding considerations that accompany seeing children’s home contexts.

Limiting the number of apps and platforms is a good way to keep it simple for staff and students

It is important that teachers can plan, deliver, assess and communicate in a manageable way using technology that the school has provided. Most of the time this will be a school laptop or tablet so quite different to a whiteboard, classroom and sets of books. Limiting the number of apps and platforms is a good way to keep it simple for staff and students. Providing ongoing remote CPD and support is also vital to success.

An example might be having a suite of apps for specific jobs. Google Classroom for setting, storing and sharing work, tools such as Kahoot! for AFL and revising policies on assessment and marking towards meaningful feedback on submitted work. This can be done via voice notes, mark-up and digital stickers to reduce the time and workload of remote teachers whilst still giving children the recognition and formative feedback they need.

2. Digitise traditional teacher pedagogies

No teacher came into the profession to manage complicated online learning systems or sit behind a screen for eight hours per day. It’s important that the professional practice teachers do every day can be digitised and brought into an online space.

Some of the most successful remote learning approaches focus on traditional pedagogies and replicate them in digital spaces. Here are some examples.

Teacher exposition and slide narration can be achieved via a Google Hangout, Teams or Zoom meeting by talking over a screen cast of the teacher laptop. Discussion can be stimulated and encouraged by tagging students in Teams or Zoom chats, or by sharing screens.

Group work can be achieved via Zoom breakout rooms or Teams channels. Resources can be distributed before the lesson to subgroups within a class to allow differentiation by grouping or by task by the teacher. Or perhaps students can be pointed towards a shared Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive or Showbie folders to pick up resources appropriate for different groupings.

Peer-to-peer paired learning can be achieved via structured project learning. The emphasis shifts towards the teachers providing high-quality scaffolded resources that allow for open-ended submissions. Once instructions are understood, teachers can step back and allow pupils to communicate directly and work together on a collaborative outcome (perhaps a shared PowerPoint, report, movie or podcast).

Assessment for learning is still just as important in a remote context. Most live platforms now come with a hands-up feature and a chat function. These can be used for instant feedback (e.g. give me a quick score from 10 for your understanding of this before I move on). There are many more advanced tools for AFL with Quizziz, Quizlet and Kahoot! probably being the most popular and easy to use.

3. Structure is everything

It is much harder to take the temperature of the room and adjust approach as teachers do in every traditional lesson. It is hard to know when learners are bored, fidgety or lost. Therefore, short structured tasks tend to work best.

Flipped and blended learning approaches were pioneered online and continue to work really well. Teachers can record or curate some stimulus material or require pre-reading/watching before the lesson. This will help generate discussion from the get-go and ensure that students understand the context of the lesson.

Teaching new content can be difficult to a cold audience so scaffolding is important. Short tasks that hook the students in, followed by building blocks that lead towards something deeper, is a good method for progress online.

4. Keep expectations realistic

Teachers have high expectations of themselves and can be nervous about broadcasting less-than-perfect lessons. As leaders is important to communicate that ‘good enough’ is ok.

Many teachers are juggling care commitments and dealing with their own health, financial and family worries. A helpful maxim is ‘don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’.

5. Seek opportunities for connection

Support teachers to continue a meaningful connection with their students rather than just admin and audit trails. Encourage Zoom style tutor meetings, sports-team quizzes, competitions and topical stimuli.

Encourage teachers to consider what they can do rather than what they cannot

Remember that learners still want to feel connected to their peers and not just be passive recipients of tasks and homework. Tools such as Padlet for creating photo walls and live mind mapping can be great for sharing photos in a safe and curated landscape.

Encourage teachers to consider what they can do rather than what they cannot – for example plastic scavenger hunts around the house to learn about plastic pollution or counting the windows for a maths project on averages.

Twitter and PLNs (professional learning networks) are incredibly rich places to magpie ideas from for remote teaching. Suggest staff follow other educators and educational hashtags to further develop their practice.

6. Look after your people

March seems like a long time ago now. A lot of teachers (and pupils) will be running out of steam, energy and enthusiasm for remote learning alongside the other balls they are juggling.

It is important to thank staff regularly and share examples of best practice through school communities. Initiatives such as ‘home learning heroes’ where staff nominate colleagues who they feel are doing a great job, or weekly photo competitions on a theme that pulls the whole school community together are good ways to keep colleagues going.

Allowing students to broadcast to the school on a theme and setting up virtual assemblies are all effective ways to bring people out of silos.

To sum up...

Successful approaches to remote learning focus on people rather than the technology. For many schools Covid-19 presents a clear sign that business as usual is no longer an option. Investing in appropriate digital platforms and training staff effectively will be key to education in ‘new-normal’ landscapes.

School leaders should apply their knowledge of their own context but not be afraid to take bold decisions to migrate to cloud systems and think differently about future provision.

Last Updated: 
12 Jan 2021