Flip Distance Learning: Rethinking Direct Instruction

As both a college student during this COVID-19 pandemic and a soon-to-be student teacher, I have seen both sides of online instruction. While we are incredibly lucky to have technology as a means to keep us safe and connected while the coronavirus continues to run rampant throughout our country, online learning also presents an entirely new set of complex challenges that have forcibly shifted the paradigm of commonly accepted teaching practices. While the world is in such an unstable state, how can we as teachers create a safe space for our students to both learn and find comfort? How can we ease their anxiety if we are holding them to out-dated teaching methods that are incompatible with the mental process of learning online? The answer lies with completely rethinking the aims of instruction and focusing on interpersonal discussion rather than prefabricated lectures and readings.

Teaching and learning from home is an entirely different atmosphere, and it should be treated as such. With the somewhat forced utilization of technology during the COVID-19 pandemic also comes instructional opportunities to include a wide variety of multimedia tools to engage all types of learners. From online scavenger hunts and interactive texts to gamified learning and virtual reality, one might begin to wonder if the traditional classroom lecture is even relevant in an online classroom. While presenting information in a straightforward lecture still has its merits as a simple and direct means of instruction, synchronous lectures do not easily fit within an online format.  Students simply cannot sit and listen to a synchronous lecture online in the same way they did in classrooms. Distractions are higher and attention spans are shorter, making sitting at a screen for hours at a time unproductive and unhealthy for students. Additionally, synchronous lectures are often easily disrupted by technology errors and mishaps, which can be discouraging and counterproductive. As I have so often experienced in my online classes, so much time is wasted trying to make direct, teacher-based instruction work that we often cannot get through all the material. Rather than forcing this traditional technique into a new format, class procedures should take on a more “flipped” approach.

A flipped classroom approach means that the learning happens outside of class meetings, and the live interaction between the teachers and students is dedicated to clarifying questions or putting learned material to practice. Videos, readings, demonstrations, or visuals should be given to students before class to engage with at their own pace. This lets students initially learn on their own, while synchronous class meetings keep students accountable and allow them to interact with their peers. So rather than lecturing for an hour on Zoom, a teacher might create a pre-recorded video for the students to watch at their own leisure or assign some other task that teaches the material directly to the students. Creating asynchronous instructional assignments alleviates the issues of online learning in several ways. First, students will not burn out as quickly. Because they can complete these tasks at their own pace, they are free to pause and stretch and take some time away from the screen before returning to their work. In turn, this will alleviate stress and encourage authentic learning. Additionally, flipped classroom practices give students a sense of agency over their own learning, which is especially important in a time where one might feel that they have no control over anything. Similarly, in the event of technology errors, students have more time to communicate with the teacher and arrange for extended time to fix their technology rather than stressing about dropping out of a Zoom lecture.

In addition to the practical elements of implementing a flipped classroom approach online, students can also benefit socio-emotionally from dedicated class time for engagement with their peers. In an in-person setting, a student may walk in, sit down next to their friend, and talk and laugh with them before class starts. Throughout the class, they may work together, share their thoughts, and help each other learn. Not only does this help each student academically, but the feeling of solidarity is extremely important to motivate students in school and help their social skills develop properly. However, because peer interaction does not naturally occur in an online setting, social activities must be made an intentional priority during synchronous classes. In a flipped classroom, synchronous class sessions become more discussion-based rather than lecture-oriented. Having already been exposed to the material, students would have the opportunity to focus on engaging with their peers and helping each other understand the material. This creates a similar relationship between students and allows them to engage with each other rather than silently staring at their screens.

Therefore, in the age of online teaching, we must shift from what is comfortable for us as teachers to methods that benefit the learning and well-being of our students. A flipped classroom approach is just one way to prioritize student interaction and discussion while still maximizing content attainment online. COVID-19 has undoubtedly created a new and unstable world, and educators must step up and adjust for the sake of their students and the success of the educational system as a whole.

Students, Social Interaction, and a Pandemic

Students are students because they attend school, have classmates, friends, teammates, teachers who are mentors, a safe space in the school building. So of all the things they are, they are missing so many pieces of themselves this fall. 

School districts are working as hard they can to provide an education that resembles consistency and equitable learning. However, what can’t be made up is the physical social interactions that students have been wanting since schools closed back in March. So, how can we create a community and a sense of interpersonal interactions? We are limited in the numbers of students per class and to a 6 feet distance rule. Well, here are some ideas: 

Classroom Rituals 

Creating classroom rituals can temporarily fill in any gaps with remote learning. Students are still able to interact with each other as a class and create a sense of community with one another. It may sound corny but even with the distance, students will still feel connected. 

Starting class with a rose, thorn, and bud activity can get students warmed up to listening to each other and being able to talk about something good that happened to them, something negative (if any), and then something they are looking forward to. Making this into a class ritual where there is a day dedicated to doing this in the morning can help put a band-aid over the interpersonal gap. Students can get to know each other and create a sense of community in the classroom. 

Playing a short game that is related to the class can help students get excited about the content that will be taught that day. Teachers can use Kahoot (a trivia website game) to have students answer fun or content related questions. This can be used as an informal assessment to gather about the students while letting the students bond over the competitive nature of trivia. Other games could include (but not limited to) Pictionary, Never Have I Ever and Scavenger Hunt! 

As a teacher, creating a community is different from the online format. However, making modifications to what has been done in the past to fit the online format can be done. Classroom rituals can be beneficial for students to feel for connected the new classroom environment, their teacher, and their classmates. 

During Class 

It can be difficult for students to discuss with each other in an online format. There are a few ways to allow student collaboration and discussion while using online classroom tools. The use of the chat function, break-out rooms, and creating small group projects can help students converse with one another. 

The chat function can be great for students to talk to each other during class. Using the chat can be a discrete way to ask or clarify things for each other without disrupting instruction. This can mimic the side chatter the students occasionally have in class. However, it is really important to note that there need to be guidelines with this. Student chats can often get out of hand. Limiting it to only class-related chats and making it clear that inappropriate conversations or language will not be tolerated is important to ensure a positive classroom environment. 

Break- out rooms can be a great resource to allow students to interact with each other. In every class, there are going to be students who are more inclined to speak to the whole group but most would prefer to talk in smaller groups. Creating these rooms for students to discuss the content helps students process the information with one another. This fills in what could be the side conversation or the after-class conversations students have if the school was in-person. Another way break-out rooms can be used is to just let students catch up with each other. Incorporating in breaks (depending on time) can allow students to just reconnect with others to discuss whatever they would talk about if they were at school. 

Lastly, in-class group work. Some may groan in despair but we carry on. Giving students a chance to work together on a small project during class can help facilitate collaboration. Students will be able to utilize the Google Suite sites to create documents for class live. This can be done by creating break out rooms. While this removes the students’ power to create their group, it will give them a chance to possibly be paired with people they know or can get to know. 

These options can be really helpful in creating a classroom community and allow students to still have some sense of the interpersonal interactions that they crave as adolescents. While it is not in person but at least they will be able to interact more than just seeing each other. A big piece to recognize is that not all students can show their faces. Not punishing students for having their video on is important. Just make sure that the students are participating.  

Conclusion 

Everyone is currently adapting to the new normal. Students are faced with changes that they were also not ready for. However, they can adapt. One day, they will see each other without a screen or a 6 feet distance requirement. But until then, as teachers, we should help facilitate time for them to create and build students’ relationships with their peers. It is important to be patient with students who are struggling more than others. Not all students have the same home life. Giving students all space where they can learn, collaborate, and still have fun consistently is going to help their engagement in the class.