Allow me to take off the InsideSchools editorial hat for a second. I’m just Tom, the father of a 10-year-old who is just as overwhelmed by all the resources and links and free tools as many other parents. Not to mention my son’s frustration with the whole darn situation.

Now, carefully putting on an expert hat, I happen to have a lot of experience in online learning. For three years I worked on the implementation of iLearnNYC--the city’s online and blended learning program in over 100 schools. In addition, I played a lead role designing and launching WeTeachNYC, the city’s digital learning space for teachers.

I have also taught many online teacher education courses over the years at the university level. In that time, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to learn and teach with technology. As students, teachers, and parents all over the world scramble to figure out how to keep schooling moving in the coming weeks and months, I thought I would share some advice.

Forget the resources. Focus on principles.

There are six principles I’ve learned over the years about K-12 online learning (and college, too, honestly) that might help families and teachers manage expectations and know what is worth focusing on.

Tom’s 6 Principles for K-12 Online Learning

1. Being digitally savvy doesn’t necessarily translate to learning online. Contrary to popular belief, the ease with which students text or post to Snapchat or fire through Fortnite have little to do with their interest and readiness to learn digitally. This is an important truth to start with, because if adults assume too much of students’ out-of-the-gate digital learning readiness, they will miss opportunities to slow down and explain more thoughtfully what is expected and how to achieve it. Explain to learners every little step required for them to successfully complete assignments--and use screencasting video to do so (see #3).

2. Forget the product; start with the purpose. It’s completely normal to go hunting for the one tool you think you need for teaching online. Companies fuel this instinct by promoting their products as solutions, which we are seeing with Zoom and Cisco’s WebEx recently. But here’s the thing: the product represents a means to bringing your purpose to life. Do not adopt any product for learning or teaching without explicitly understanding the instructional purpose it fulfills. For example, using synchronous communication can give students a chance to discuss topics in realtime and ask questions of the instructor on the spot.

What products can do this? Well, video conferencing is one option (i.e. Zoom, Google Hangout, Skype), but so is audio conferencing (i.e. conference calling). Once you are clear on your instructional purpose, you will see that there are often many ways to meet your needs. My advice: pick the simplest option and reduce the total number of new products to the fewest possible.

3. All video is not created equally. There is a lot of talk of using popular video conferencing services to teach online. I totally understand that doing so appears to make sense, but hear me out. Video conferencing is in real-time or synchronous. It works well for smaller kinds of meetings, but once you have more than 8-10 people online at once, the odds that something will go wrong increase exponentially. It doesn’t even have to apply to most attendees. If one student’s connection is insufficient, then the teacher feels a real-time responsibility to help them troubleshoot, which in turn distracts from the purpose of the meeting.

An alternative is screencasting. I use Screencastify with Google Apps, for example. I can record myself and/or whatever I’m doing on my screen, save it, and easily share it with students. You get many of the benefits of video without any of the risk. Further, students can watch and re-watch videos shared with them however often they need to. I’ve made videos that literally show students how to sign into online platforms I’m using, where to click, what to watch out for, and so on. I assume nothing and show them everything. (And, I always have a conference phone line on backup in case the video conference platform falls apart.)

4. Embrace paper and pencils. Sounds counterintuitive, but I believe this deeply and it’s how I taught myself to program using virtual course materials. Learners process differently when they create physical notes, when they can visually arrange ideas, and when they can put pencil to paper. If a student is supposed to be learning remotely, I strongly encourage parents and teachers to explicitly help them set up analogue note-taking mechanisms. For teachers, you can require that students not only watch some content videos, but that they take notes on a piece of paper (according to your guidelines), take a picture of it when they are done, and send it to you. It can be that easy. Digital learning benefits tremendously from having a thoughtful offline component.

5. Think in terms of creative products. Most teachers I have worked with in online learning settings work too hard on the wrong things. It’s true that teaching online means you have to think further in advance and in additional detail than you might typically do in the classroom. At least for some teachers. They plan and plan and plan. But here’s the thing: Learning isn’t about teachers covering content; learning is about students uncovering understanding.

Teachers, and parents, often need to take the onus of teaching off their own shoulders and put the onus of learning on students’. How? By beginning your planning with a simple question: What do I want students to show me as evidence of their learning? For example, when I teach online I often assign a project called a 3x3. Students might read or listen to or watch a bunch of texts related to a guiding question or topic. Then, they prepare three presentation slides in which they summarize what they read, pull out a significant quote from each, and offer their insights and new questions that emerge. But here’s the twist. They use screencasting software to record a presentation video for me no longer than three minutes. I’ve assigned students to create concept maps, collages, essays, and even web-based exhibits. The point is to think less about what you have to teach and more about what students can create to show you what they have learned.

6. Embrace feedback and communication. Finally, it’s really important that students feel like there is an actual human being out there who cares about the quality of their learning. When I worked for iLearnNYC, I remember talking with a student who refused to complete the online lessons her teacher assigned. When I asked why, she said she submitted a short paper the previous week and her teacher didn’t respond to her. (In fact, her teacher didn’t even know anything had been submitted or that she was supposed to assess it. She believed the “computer” would do all that.)

Adults who are supporting students learning online need to be proactive and multi-channeled in their communications. Send whole class videos every day or other day. Refer to the questions and comments other students might have made, so others see that you actually do dialogue. Send informal videos and emails, just to remind students you care. If the spirit moves you, set up a Google Voice phone number--it comes to your phone via a different number that you can turn on or off--so students can call or text you during specific hours.

Ultimately, what matters most is whether students are authentically engaged in pursuing real questions in their worlds, systematically and intentionally. As adults in their lives, our role is to create experiences for and with them that allow young people to uncover understanding, to incite their insight. That’s the goal, whether you're online or off.

Image credit: Tom Liam Lynch