By John Hickey, Assistant Superintendent for Innovation and Learning
Global Education right now finds itself in uncertain times. Our school, along with thousands of international schools around the world, is navigating a new path due to crisis and the unknown. Never in our lifetime have we witnessed the complete interruption of onsite education and be left to rely on our own resourcefulness and perseverance to finish the school year. Yet, this is where we are. In times like this it is better to count one’s blessings rather than to tally how many clouds there are in the sky before a coming storm.
Digital Learning over the past decade at ASFM has been a focused and successful endeavor. Led by our Innovation Team and supported by our creative and motivated teaching staff, ASFM has gone to the very lead in “Blended Learning” amongst schools in Latin America. The school has invested in software platforms over the years that have enhanced and augmented the student experience at ASFM with digital tools that support the curriculum and allow teachers to design personalized learning for their students. Also, the move to standards based education over recent years has clearly identified what are the absolute learning essentials for all of our children at each grade level. In March, prior to transitioning to full-time distance learning, teachers participated in several days of professional development with a focus on both how to manage technological platforms and how to be flexible in their expectations for students’ academic performance while still holding them accountable for their efforts to learn and do the work. The roll-out of our distance learning platform, although not flawless, has been a strong effort towards maximizing student learning under current conditions. Even still, ASFM is working tirelessly to improve on our Distance Learning Model. In this pursuit, we are not alone and our school leaders have engaged in an ongoing dialogue with educators around the globe through webinars, teleconferencing and collegial exchange. International School Associations like the Tri-Association, AASSA, AISH, NWEA, Cognia, and AAIE have stepped forward with their expertise and assistance. What then is the current thinking on best practice distance learning that we can rely upon as a refuge during this adversity?
Any discussion of best practice distance learning needs to establish some baselines and establish accord on some vocabulary. Distance learning is not "online school" (as exemplified by some University and N-12 programs), but rather it is more appropriately termed “remote learning”. Within remote learning, the options for connection with students and families include online group video conferencing,”flipped” classrooms with recorded content, lessons and activities provided via a LMS (Learning Management System), personalized video calls to an individual for additional help, and emails. The more tech savvy a learning community is, and the more resources available to the students, the more likely a school will adapt to this new paradigm. Educators are currently dialoguing over the balance of what is called “Synchronous vs. Asynchronous” Learning. Synchronous learning, commonly supported by technology such as videoconferencing and chat, attempts to support students with learning that is existing or occurring at the same time. Learners and teachers often experience synchronous learning as more social and avoid frustration by asking and answering questions in real time. In contrast, asynchronous learning means not keeping time together, which refers to students' ability to access information, demonstrate what they've learned, and communicate with classmates and instructors on their own time. Asynchronous learning allows flexibility for learners and easily accommodates different learning styles, as students can often exercise more choice when it comes to the order they wish to cover material and how deep to dive into a given topic. Best practice research on distance learning has revealed that these two approaches are not mutually exclusive...high functioning programs incorporate aspects of both styles.
The key to success is to determine which pedagogical situation (dependent on age of learner, subject, and activity) calls for which of the two methods. Synchronous learning is useful for maintaining and building up classroom community as well as addressing social-emotional learning. (Sometimes the “real time” interaction between students is a valuable tool to dismiss feelings of isolation during times of crises.) Asynchronous learning has many positive attributes, the most obvious benefit is flexibility. This methodology is convenient to learners because they can review the resources/lesson when they have time in their learning day. (This is particularly important when normal routines, available work spaces, and familial obligations might compromise a regimented daily schedule.) Less obvious benefits include individual pacing that helps address different learning styles as well as learning special needs. Even more advantages include asynchronous collaboration in which students use interactive document editing, student to student video calls, portfolio learning and multimedia collaborations to help students engage more deeply with the material as they communicate with each other.
In the end, our educators are learning when best to use these two types of learning at the appropriate times. If anything, the future of digital learning has been trending towards the asynchronous approach because it encourages students to reflect more deeply on complex issues, allows for a more rich use of information and media tools, and allows students to find their own time for learning and controlling the pace of their progress. Synchronous learning is a good choice when attempting to boost student participation as this type of communication more closely resembles face-to-face communication. There is no denying the emotional “charge” and look of happiness on our children’s faces when they get a chance to see their friends and classmates, even virtually!
What then is our path forward? Prudent school leaders have taken heed of medical experts who warn that our current interruption could be replicated in the fall should conditions regress. Some experts have identified the possible need to “toggle” back and forth from on-site learning to distance learning multiple times in the school year. It is clear that we must constantly be improving our distance learning model and have it ready should circumstance require it. Furthermore, our distance learning experience is teaching us valuable lessons as educators that we surely will be incorporating into our traditional protocols of pedagogy. It is likely that education around the world will develop into a “hybrid” model of both digital and on-site experiences. Some things will not change, however. We will still be a strong community of learners, connected by bonds of family, friendship, and tradition. Our students, staff and parents are resourceful, resilient, and generous. However we find ourselves morphed by this experience, I am certain we will all be the better for it, and I have high hopes for the heights we will achieve as we innovate and adapt to ensure the absolute best learning experience for our students.