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How distance learning fosters global collaboration

Faced with a pandemic that has dramatically altered the way we do practically everything in a matter of weeks, teachers, in particular, have been tossed outside of their comfort zones as schools remain closed and educators are asked to teach remotely.

Read more: On challenges and opportunities: Emergency remote teaching

While this sudden turn of events has caused much anxiety for both teachers and learners, there have been valuable lessons learned about how we can leverage technology to benefit education. One of these has been the increase in global collaboration.

Though there are many inequities that have been revealed in the amount of access that students have to the tools needed for distance learning, there are also many ways in which global collaboration has, directly and indirectly, benefited educational institutions during this crisis.

How do we even begin?

As schools began to shut their doors around the globe due to COVID-19, teachers in countries that had already moved to systems of remote learning began to share examples online of what worked and what didn’t so that newcomers could benefit from their experiences.

For example, teachers in Hong Kong realized that their students needed emotional support in addition to their online assignments, and began to organize regular small group chats and ways to include their faces in videos they shared so teachers and students could make familiar connections with each other.

For this reason, many districts in the United States made the decision to offer live (synchronous) meetings at least once a week, while also offering asynchronous activities.

Read more: Adopting the asynchronous mindset for better online learning

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Resources such as this site, have been promoted widely, and many educators have taken the suggestions of those who have experienced similar situations to avoid trying to adhere to the conventional school timeline for assignments in efforts to reduce student anxiety.

What do we use?

Whether school districts were already familiar with learning management systems, or brand new to distance learning, there have still been many questions about the best ways to communicate with students and transform traditional lessons into ones that will work across platforms and available digital devices.

To meet this sudden global demand, many companies that sell tools for educational technology have made their premium plans free for educators during this time, giving teachers access to multiple tools that seemed out of reach in the past, and time to explore the value of these programs to determine if they should advocate for them when this is all over.

Read more: 5 Edtech tools to try out this year

In addition, social media discussions over the pros and cons of using Zoom, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams have led to some upgrades being added to aid in privacy and behavior management as these video chat options are being tested at a rate that could never have been predicted.

How do we learn to do this?

Teachers are valiantly trying to do the best they can in an environment a few of them have experienced. Fortunately, they not only have the support of their own colleagues and district technology experts but also fellow educators around the world like Kasey Bell, who has a “Free PD for Teachers Stuck at Home” page on her blog.

Many companies who offer educational resources, like the New York Times Learning Network, have provided free webinars that give suggestions for the modifications that could be made to lessons to make them “distance learning friendly.”

When participating in live webinars, such as “Easy PZ with the Smithsonian”, it is not uncommon to see educators joining from all over the world in the chat room, asking questions and suggesting ideas for the best ways to frame lessons being taught remotely.

With somewhat more flexible schedules, teachers right now have more opportunities to attend weekday online professional development sessions than ever before.

Read more: How to succeed with online PD for teachers

What do we do?

The volume of teachers sharing lessons appropriate for online teaching has dramatically increased on social media. Educators on Twitter and Facebook have been quick to offer free ideas, and eager to learn from others.

Websites like Common Sense have been curating this virtual firehose of recommendations in an effort to organize the seemingly endless number of resources into categories that seem a bit less overwhelming. For ways to frame these ideas into meaningful lessons, Catlin Tucker shares “Tips for Designing an Online User Experience Using the 5 E’s”.

Museums, such as the Getty and The New Children’s Museum, have been successful with online challenges that highlight works of art as well as the creativity of the participants. In the meantime, zoos may be closed, but they are perhaps reaching even wider audiences with their livestream videos that highlight different animals and their keepers, as well as providing accompanying extension materials.

As school districts attempt to make devices and connections available to students who may have never had many digital options, there are more opportunities than ever to “flatten” the classroom and become a more global society.

Read more: How to build your global classroom in 4 steps

Projects that invite classes to connect across the world, like Empatico, can help students to learn how to interact with peers using activities like the “Bite-sized” lesson on respectful communication.

Whether during a chat on a livestream video or in a comment section on a Scratch project, students are being given windows into each others’ lives that can highlight their similarities and acknowledge differences. They can read the entries in this “COVID-19 Diary from Kids Around the World”, and see that students in India and New Jersey are experiencing the same mixed feelings about school closures. They can add to the Scratch “Coronavirus Crafts” studio and learn from contributors around the world how to make dog rain jackets or butter slime.

In Tinkercad, another free design tool available online, they might want to find out what delicious desserts have been created in 3D by kids around the world.

Read more: 3D printing in schools: Is it worth it?

What’s next?

According to G.K. Chesterton,

Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.

Many people have mourned the loss of traditional classroom learning during this pandemic, but it can also be argued that these unusual circumstances may have increased skills that may not typically be practiced in conventional environments.

Teachers who have been hesitant to attempt new digital tools will have new wisdom about what may or may not work when they return to brick and mortar schools. They will be more aware of global colleagues they can depend on for advice in addition to the members of their own faculties.

Students will find that learning can happen anywhere and that there are multiple platforms where their voices can be heard, as well as diverse perspectives that can be viewed.

Read more: The amazing power of ed-tech on connecting classrooms

The biggest takeaway from this forced experimentation may be that our society’s soul is renewed by seeing the benefits of working together.

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