By Courtney Francis

Institute for Learning

Remote learning challenges can push even the most innovative educators beyond their limits. Seasoned educators are rapidly evolving time-tested instructional skills for ever-changing learning environments. Pre-service teachers report insufficient preparation for remote learning environments. There are too few choices, and yet too many, under increased pressure to become more discerning consumers of technology.

I am fortunate to be an instructional technology project manager with plenty of pre-pandemic experience in remote learning design. My work with adult learners, many of them K12 teachers, has shown me that the ideal balance between education and technology is hard to strike under the best conditions. Though many (ok, most) technology companies position themselves as “the” solution, the reality of remote instruction is one of broken systems, misaligned features, and excessive frustration that has dramatically affected the education of historically marginalized and economically disadvantaged learners, including students of color, multilingual learners, LGBTQ+ students, and students with a disability.

It’s no secret that the business of instructional technology has deeply influenced our current circumstances, but I also think it can help us better navigate them. I want to share a technique from the field of education technology that can increase focus on issues you currently face or spark new ideas that can make remote instruction a richer experience for students and teachers.

Accountable Talk ® practices support the exploration into learning boundaries

No one knows better than teachers that when a great idea meets the cruel reality of remote instruction, it can sometimes become…less great. Face-to-face, synchronous remote learning can take more planning than traditional classroom instruction, as teachers find themselves solving technology problems for both themselves and their students. Students engaging in high-level tasks benefit from a simple technical implementation that keeps them focused on learning the content, not the technology. Reflecting on the simplest way to achieve this and the learning goals is helpful.

One of the first steps of planning an education technology design project is to collect and analyze project limitations. We must work with the immovable factors whether we like it or not and understanding them helps us focus on areas of potential. Limitations include any project factors that we cannot influence, like state standards, attendance requirements, and adherence to COVID-19 protocol. This practice can be applied to remote learning design to set proper expectations and reduce the number of choices we need to stress over.

The same Accountable Talk practices we use to guide equitable classroom discussion can guide an inquiry into instructional limitations. Accountable Talk features are not content-dependent, so they can be used to examine remote learning for K12 students and adults. Consider the following guiding questions to explore limitations through an Accountable Talk lens. As you identify limitations, you can decide whether they can be influenced or are immovable. From there, the high-impact areas of instruction can be prioritized.

Accountable Talk requires that students and teachers ask questions, explore claims, and produce evidence to support the pursuit of accurate knowledge. Note limitations to acquiring accurate knowledge by asking,

    • Which students face the greatest barriers to accessing accurate knowledge?
    • What kinds of limitations do these students face?
    • What kinds of time limitations may rush or otherwise inhibit learning?
    • Can learners access the tools they need to produce the learning artifacts asked of them?
    • In what ways does the learning environment support learners with disabilities?
    • How do students’ access “just-in-time” instructional support and/or office hours?
    • Are there instructional activities that cannot be done remotely? What are they?

Being accountable to the learning community means active participation from students and teachers. We can nurture an Accountable Talk environment full of curiosity and free of judgement by asking,

    • In what ways do we encourage digital citizenship and accountability?
    • What leaner-centered routines can be used to increase student-to-student interactions?
    • What norms support boundaries that help students and teachers avoid burnout?
    • What opportunities are provided for social-emotional learning?
    • How many hours of face-to-face instruction are required?
    • In what ways does the learning environment help historically marginalized learners connect with peers?
    • In what ways can we engage culturally responsive teaching and antiracist instruction?
    • Is there a process to identify and address student behavior and bullying?

Engaging in rigorous thinking means that learners are encouraged to synthesize information and generate new hypotheses and conclusions. We can ensure they have the proper instructional support by asking,

    • What district, state, or national standards are required for this instruction?
    • In what ways does the instruction support multilingual learning?
    • How do we ensure access learners with disabilities can access and use learning materials?
    • What options do learners have for feedback from teachers and peers? Is the feedback appropriate and actionable?
    • In what ways do we encourage academic rigor, using the tools available?
    • What desirable parts of instruction can’t be done remotely? What are alternatives?

Once we’ve drawn the boundaries of remote instruction, we can plan within them. For example, we know that synchronous face-to-face learning is inherently time-limited and can offer too little processing time for some students. One way to address this limitation is by prioritizing group work over individual work in these circumstances. Synchronous time in a virtual classroom is more useful for real-time and collaborative activities than lecture style because it provides opportunities to gain insight into student understanding. It also allows for shifting instruction on the fly to address areas of unfinished learning, encouraging Accountable Talk discussion, and addressing technical challenges.

When designing among limitations, we can also look to adjacent spaces for ideas. If, for example, there are immutable attendance requirements, you might establish an instructional routine or task that passively documents attendance. Many tools for remote instruction, like Zoom and Google Classroom, can be configured to automatically track attendance and do not require explicit checking-in from students. Student-facing systems can also provide a time-stamped archive of learning artifacts that include test data, assignments of diverse types, or participation data.

Using the Accountable Talk features as a lens can position your learning goals in the context of real-world limitations makes it easier to plan remote instruction that reflects real-life. When technology overwhelms instruction with additional work and added pressure, learning goals will always provide a touchstone for reflection that can shift focus back to advancing student understanding and will always serve as the north star for designing effective instruction in physical and remote classrooms.