Attendance and Participation in Online Learning

It may seem straightforward, but one of the most perplexing pieces of going back to school for many school districts will be how to measure attendance and participation.  The in-person classroom experience has largely been standardized by most districts to include a simple way of determining what counts as “attending” a class, and how much participation in class is included in the final grade, along with what counts as participating.  However, we are now in uncharted waters, and the move to online and hybrid learning has left schools scrambling to redefine what to look for, how to measure, and how to enforce attendance. 

I’ve been involved in discussions between middle school teachers planning for the upcoming school year at a k-8 school (I’ll call Maryhill), and from this will present a few of the discussion points, challenges, and solutions presented during the meetings.

What is Attendance?  What is Participation?

The simple question that is currently plaguing Maryill is “What is Attendance?”.  This is where we have to start.  Unfortunately, upon reflection, this is a much more complicated question.  Maryhill first had to determine the difference between Attendance and Participation.  Attendance, it was decided, is the simple act of being online, while participation meant class discussion and turning in homework on time.

But wait!  What if a student comes to the online class, but leaves their camera off, and never participates?  Have they “attended” the class?  What if they do this, but still turn in their homework on time?  In this scenario Maryhill decided on a two-part method of determining attendance:

  1. A student must be online and seen on camera for each class (unless on break)
  2. A student must turn in a majority of assignments for classes for that day

What, then, determines “Participation”?  We tried to understand better what kinds of methods of participation students can have in a classroom.  Maryhill broke down participation into two categories:  In-class participation and Assignment Participation.  In this way assignments became both a method of determining attendance as well as participation.  Again, Maryhill decided on a two-part method of determining student participation:

  1. Students earn participation points for each class period as a part of a final grade
  2. Students earn participation points simple for turning in assignments on time regardless of the grade of those assignments as long as they meet the minimum qualifications.

Challenges and Ongoing Questions.

To the keen observer there are obviously challenges with this setup.  Maryhill has done a good job of trying to balance the need to engagement along with trying to be sensitive to student needs, but there are going to be shortcomings and compromises no matter what the setup.

  1. This setup creates equity challenges
    • Maryhill is a private Catholic school which prides itself on equity and a diverse student population.  Uniforms are touted as a method of “equalizing” students who otherwise may not be able to afford nice clothing.  What happens then, when we are invited to peer into those same students’ homes?  However, allowing those students to turn off cameras would create attendance and participation measurement challenges.  Students may be embarrassed of their living situation, especially in front of their peers.  To address this challenge Maryhill suggests implementing a standardized digital background.
  2. Who keeps track of attendance?
    • This is an administrative question, but a challenge, nonetheless.  Previously attendance has been straightforward, with teachers taking it each class, and turning in attendance at the end of the day, along with alerting the office if a student isn’t present.  However, in this context teachers at Maryhill are sometimes co-teaching, and cohorts of students move around from one group to another.  If a student doesn’t show up for one class because of technical issues, how would the next teacher know this?  To try and address this situation, Maryhill created a living Google Document in which they could all see attendance, and make notes for each other regarding vacation or technical issues that relate to students being online.

Maryhill has created a system wherein students are held accountable for their own learning, which can be a challenge for younger students.  This is just one solution out of many schools out of many school districts.  Some schools have been purposefully more lenient in their application of online attendance.  I may revisit this question later on in the year and see how taking attendance has developed throughout the schoolyear.  Like all things with online learning, this will change and evolve as both teachers and students get used to the new mode of education.  But this is just one example of the new challenges of online education.

5 Replies to “Attendance and Participation in Online Learning”

  1. Hi Tyler!

    This is a really important conversation to have. Trying to find the balance between equity and expectation can be hard when students are learning in the comfort of their own homes.

    Another thing is that some students do not have the bandwidth to maintain a video stream. I think the way Maryhill has implemented a two-part system to attempt to cover up some of those gaps in attendance is a step in the right direction. I’m interested to see how classroom engagement will continue to evolve as we go deeper into remote learning!

  2. A very well-organized and thoroughly explained article! I hadn’t thought about some of these issues and their unique impact during distance learning, especially the disparity between students’ home environments and the potential effects on self-esteem. Did your school also specify what their attendance policy might be if a student is having technical difficulties or lacks technological resources?

  3. A very thoughtful post and comments. So much to unpack there. First off, I’m glad I don’t teach elementary level. So many of these issues are heightened there.

    I think with secondary students using a more student centered / project based approach can address some of the participation issue. But the equity and digital divide issues are still there.

    I might argue that the old model of seat time was overdue to die anyway. While the digital revolution had transformed every other legacy institutions, many classrooms of 2019 looked a lot like my high school classroom of the mid ‘60s. Now that life’s become an “open book test,” the traditional classroom was already a dinosaur.

    I think the Covid is going to be transformative to education in ways we are just realizing. I’d like to think that someday we find ourselves in a Renaissance in education and perhaps Covid may be part of the reason.

  4. Hey Tyler, love the work you did on this post. Online participation and attendance is always tricky. Speaking from our out tutor experience this summer, participation is sometimes harder to entice via virtual instruction. I’ve heard different policies for at home students and workers, some can’t Zoom or work from their beds, others must get professionally dressed etc etc. Obviously, we will be tackling these issues as we stride to streamline the process of education over an Internet platform.

    1. Exactly, Alex. When do we get off this “you have be dressed a certain way to Zoom into class?” Our goal should be to encourage engagement.

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