The Focused Student: Designing a coordinated distance-learning system

Robert Frank writes this week on the new normal: teaching remotely during the coronavirus pandemic. From left, La Cañada High School chief technology officer Jamie Lewsadder, tech integrationist Lindsay Staley and principal for 7-8 grades Dr. Jarrett Gold on March 17 talk about the online learning students are now using while not on campus.
(File Photo)

With the latest developments in the spread of the novel coronavirus that can lead to COVID-19, many schools have been trying to instantly transform into sources of online “distance learning” so their students don’t fall behind. But even when time and resources are available, and even with the now widespread availability of videoconferencing services, transposing in-person teaching to online is a challenge.

Some subjects and some courses “translate” more easily than others. History, English, philosophy, sociology, etc. are definitely easier to take online, because their fundamental building blocks are reading, writing and discussions that can take place online. A simple program that teachers can use to upload articles, videos, demonstrations or tests will probably be what most students and families see.

Sciences can follow the reading, writing and discussion part, but providing a meaningful equivalent for laboratory work is more difficult.

The arts create a significant challenge. Theater is not theater without a theater. Students can read parts, they can video their part, but no amount of splicing and dicing can replace the subtle interactions of a performance where everyone is together. Classes like ceramics need certain types of equipment that most students don’t have at home. An elective such as cooking might be easier, because most families have the equipment.


Then there is physical education. How do you know students are really exercising? Are they challenging themselves in different areas of fitness? Most classes will need to take the student and family at their word when it comes to the exercise part. Sure, the teacher can post articles to read and workouts to follow, but accountability will be the challenge.

And that brings up the next problem: developing an online curriculum that is credible, not easily “gamed” by students and that evaluates the student’s true ability. Some online programs rely on a certified proctor in the area to administer tests and finals, but many rely on the integrity of the student. Google Classroom provides a way of letting you know how many times a student guessed or missed a question, and other programs have some built-in features that help.

Finally, the instructor, school or district need to determine which platform to use. If you Google “distance learning” or “online education,” there are a lot of platforms that pop up. Some of them have courses you buy, while others give you the tools to build the curriculum. Some are geared toward a business while others, such as Discord, are geared toward the gaming world.

If a school lets each teacher decide, then students may have to adapt to several platforms. This can make a students’ success more a function of how well they understood the mechanics of each platform than how much subject knowledge was absorbed. It’s to students’ advantage if each school opts for one platform; it’s easier for a few instructors to adapt rather than hundreds of students.


The learning management system Canvas is used by many universities. Google Classroom is used by many primary and high schools. A teacher might then need to enhance the program with several apps. For example, Google Classroom has the app Google Hangout, which allows each individual in the class to be seen remotely by the other students and the teacher, allowing for discussion. Some teachers will use Zoom, an online videoconferencing service. A physical education program might use 24hrgo which posts workouts.

What makes for a good online curriculum? A comprehensive approach that keeps students organized, interested, accountable for deadlines yet flexible in how to meet those deadlines, an electronic classroom in which to interact and maintain community, and a system that measures the learning progress of each student.

As the days, weeks and possibly months roll on, check in with your student and find out how or what he or she is doing. Have them explain to you how distance learning is working. This may give them the added incentive to continue the effort.

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