Distance Education – part 1 : General Guidelines

In my inbox I got a message from an ex colleague asking me for advice on starting up distance education in her school. TEFL/ESL lessons where put on hold for her school and she needs to come up with a plan to also integrate the English lessons into the distance education plan. Instead of only giving her advice I want to help all of you as well. I’m trying to give this advice not only as a teacher, but also as a parent. I also asked fellow teachers and other parents their vision. In this first article I will go over some general guidelines. These are points that I find important not only for efficient distance teaching but also for maintaining a bond with your students and their parents.

A. Personal Contact

Personal contact 1 on 1 with students and also with parents is greatly appreciated. Phone the parents and ask how the child is doing not only with the study material, but how is his mood in general, can the parents still cope with it all,… It will take a few minutes of your time but it shows your commitment.

Arranging personal contact between peers as well, instead of using online time for teaching (I will come to the teaching part later) use it for group discussions or an online game that you would normally play in the classroom even a singalong or dancing together and acting silly creates the bond that they miss when being away from school.

B. Know your technology

If you use a program to communicate with your students or for an online quiz, make sure that you know how to use the program before going online with your students. Have a practice run with your colleagues. Not only does that prevent that tech-savvy kids mess around with you or make fun of you, it also helps to make a professional impression towards the students and their parents.

Also make sure that the program used is known by parents and students and provide a simple step-by-step tutorial to guide them. Of course the selection of the program and content needs to be safe and age appropriate. You can find many reviews online, but in another article I will let you in on my favorite programs and websites.

C. Time management and planning

Of course you need to plan your lessons, but you also need to keep in consideration their other lessons and other teachers. Make sure you know the online schedule if your class has sessions with teachers on Monday morning, Wednesday afternoon and Friday morning, then plan your time on Tuesday or Thursday don’t insist on Monday afternoon.

Help your students to plan their work, make a clear list of tasks and when you expect it to be finished. A list to tick off works very well with most students. It is also a good idea to divide it into main work and extra work. Take a critical look. Don’t overload them with loads of work, don’t forget that their parents most likely will have to help them while working from home. Try to find a balance.

On the same note I would advise that you plan ahead. You can give your students instructions for a week, but plan the work ahead for a month so that you can print material for a month in case you must print material for your students. Let go of your monthly and yearly plan because you can’t expect students to work at the same pace as they do in class.

D. Clear instructions

Make sure that the instructions are easy to understand. For younger students you can use the symbols that you also use in class to show what they have to do (scissors to represent cut etc). Instead of giving your students live instructions, make a video or use a program that can capture your live instructions. That way they can look at it several times in case they don’t understand or in case they forgot.

Instructions are preferably given in English. This is after all an English lesson. Following instructions is also excellent for language development. In a video that shouldn’t be a problem but if you write them down, you might need to write a separate note for parents in their mother tongue in case they don’t know English. Don’t put them on the same page, because some students will just skip the English instructions and read in their mother tongue.

E. Selection of assignments

Select your material wisely. Keep in mind that although they have workbooks, it might not be easy to look every session in 4 different workbooks, do 2 printed worksheets and go on a website to do an online assignment. If you need to include work from different workbooks then either show in a video which pages in which books they need to cover exactly or another option is to just cover 1 book 1 week and another book another week. In any case you must be incredibly detailed and clear when explaining what they need to do. Keep also in mind that it is not possible for students to produce the same amount of work at home alone as they would do in the classroom under your supervision.

Don’t forget your students who normally receive extra material whether it is because their level is more evolved, because of special needs or because they need more attention on certain fields. Don’t forget about them and create a personal path for them with extra or even completely other exercises.

Another point there is that you need to keep in mind that with the assignment that you give is the options of the students. Not everybody has a printer at home so if printing is required than you must find a way for all your students to be able to have the material. You can print them for them and make sure they can pick it up or have it delivered to them. You can give them alternatives as well. It might not be a bad idea to do a small survey to see who can print material and who can’t.

Avoid assignments that require a lot of different or very specific materials. Most parents don’t have a whole bunch of materials at home to choose from. Try to think of materials that almost everybody has at home and give several options to complete the task.

F. Unified communication

Agree on a shared platform of communication that all teachers use to communicate the assignments to the students as well as a way to do the online lessons. On the same note try to communicate once a week that week tasks and the times of online activities. It is for students and parents hard if they need to look on several different communication channels to find all the different information. They are bound to miss crucial information. Not to mention all the different passwords that they need to remember. If there is a tradition of using several different platforms and not all parents are committed to one platform then send the same information once a week to all of the platforms.

These are already a starting points. In the next articles I will go over technology and give more concrete teaching ideas and even some lesson plans.