This past spring, we were thrown into online teaching with almost no preparation. But now we have time to catch our breath and think about the upcoming year. As COVID-19 rates fluctuate, the back-to-school plan is still a moving target—but for most of us, teaching remotely will be part of the picture. Classes might be online and asynchronous, with kids logging in to watch pre-recorded lessons. Some will teach remotely in real time. And some might face a combination of those scenarios. For formulating best practices, what research is actually relevant to distance and blended learning?
For starters: the Visible Learning database. A collection of more than 1800 meta-analyses of over 300 million students, this resource quantifies the impact of specific actions and practices on student learning. In fact, it’s so thorough that authors Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie used the findings as the basis of their new book, The Distance Learning Playbook . (Get a great deal here using the code WAT30.)
We Don’t Have to Start Over
The authors of The Distance Learning Playbook argue that transitioning to online teaching doesn’t mean throwing out everything we know about how kids learn. And it doesn’t require a whole new pedagogy of education. On the contrary—now is the time to shore up strategies that we’ve already learned are crucial and adapt them to our new situation, whatever that might be.
The Visible Learning database quantifies an “average effect size” at 0.40 (meaning an action will produce a year’s worth of learning in a year’s time and is therefore considered “average”). Influences over 0.40 are above average and accelerate learning. And those below that number will have minimal or opposite effects. While the effect size of technology is low, the effect of variables like teacher clarity (at 0.75) and teacher credibility (at 1.09) are significant. Rather than worry about a delivery method beyond our control (online vs. face to face), we can focus on the things already proven most important to teaching effectively.
For example, one of these proven impacts is relationships. Strong relational bonds aren’t just pleasant; they have significant potential to increase achievement. And distance learning doesn’t have to mean such connections will be inferior. Teachers can demonstrate empathy through virtual office hours. They can communicate unconditional positive regard by using interest surveys to personalize lessons. And there are dozens of other ways to foster relationships—even if we never meet face to face.
With an effect size of -0.47, boredom quickly leads to disengagement, and that means learning doesn’t happen. Students need to be engaged in a variety of ways: behaviorally, cognitively, and emotionally. The tasks we give them must draw their attention as they find, use, create, and share information. This is absolutely possible “at a distance.” We just have to be proactive about using the tools we have and thoughtfully creating assignments.
Classroom discussion has an effect size of 0.82, and there is no doubt that dialogue and working in groups ups learning gains. There are a number of routines that teachers are adapting for online learning. These include book clubs, text rendering, jigsaw, and reciprocal teaching. With a few tweaks, powerful classroom strategies can work just as well virtually.
Applying the Research to Distance Learning
It’s one thing to know that drivers of achievement in the classroom also apply to distance learning. But it’s another to put those findings into practice. That’s why we think The Distance Learning Playbook is so helpful. The authors give hundreds of suggestions to leverage the data for teaching in virtual environments. Highly interactive, the book includes space to record ideas, goals, and personal experiences. It also contains QR codes that link to additional examples of the techniques explained.