Making the Most Out of Online Learning

Q&A with Mariale Hardiman, Ed.D.
Kayt Sukel
July 20, 2020

As school districts around the country are rolling out – and sometimes immediately rolling back – plans for the Fall 2020 semester in light of the current Covid-19 pandemic, many parents are carefully weighing their options. A growing number of epidemiologists and medical experts have suggested that schools should continue distance learning programs come August and September. But the American Academy of Pediatrics stunned many in both the medical and educational realms when it recommended that children return to school this fall, as they “learn best when they are in the classroom.” Within days, the organization walked the controversial statement back, adding that “science and community circumstances” must guide when, where, and how schools safely reopen given the rising number of cases.

Given the ever-changing situation regarding the novel coronavirus, it’s likely that politicians, medical experts, and educators will continue to debate the pros and cons of remote education initiatives for some time to come. In the meantime, parents have to make choices about whether to send their children back to school – or, if choosing an online option, how to make sure their children can get the most out of it.

Mariale Hardiman, Ed.D., director of the Neuro-Education Initiative at Johns Hopkins School of Education, has spent her career working to enhance educational practices through a brain-targeted teaching model. Here, she explains that online learning can be effective; that emotional connections with students, even online, are key to success; and that parents don’t have to be professional teachers to help their children understand and apply what they are learning online.

Many people have said in-classroom learning is superior to distance learning. Is that true?

There are a lot of ways that online learning can occur. It’s important to separate out, right now, that there is a difference between purposeful, designed online initiatives and those that had to be thrown up quickly in the face of Covid-19.

We offer a teaching certificate at Johns Hopkins – and we offer it online now. At first, I was skeptical that we could do it online. But there was interest in it outside the state, as well as internationally, so it made sense to move the course online. I knew the content would be okay, but I worried that it wouldn’t model the kind of work we promote in the brain-targeted teaching model. The first part of that is finding an emotional connection with the instructor within the learning space, then creating the right physical learning environment. Could you really do that online? We quickly found out that you can. Online instruction can be quite effective when it is developed thoughtfully and intentionally. You can find ways to help students not only master the content but apply it within their own contexts to get what they needed to from the course. And that, ultimately, is what you want from learning. To give your students the ability to learn something and then apply it in way that makes sense.

Your course is for educators with college degrees. What about when you’re talking about trying to teach third-grade math in an online environment?

I often hear that certain classes just aren’t built to be online. Certainly, with Covid-19, people were in a rush. Many students were just getting packets of materials or some online videos. They weren’t getting the full educational experience I described. But when online programs are purposefully developed to engage the learner – and can find creative ways for learners to apply that information, it can actually be a real asset to any educational program.

Right now, a lot of people are asking what’s better: should we start back at school in the fall or stay online? There’s no good answer to that. There may very well be a learning loss if there isn’t the right technology or training to make these programs work online. But on the other hand, loss of life is worse. While some parents may be eager for their students to get back to school, others may decide to continue to have students do school at home. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a lot more parents opting to keep students out of the schools in the fall. And, if they do, they should know that it doesn’t have to mean their children’s education will suffer over the long term.

What can teachers do right now to create some of that purposeful content to help mitigate that learning loss?

It’s not an easy question to answer. I think we can mimic a lot of what we do in the classroom. But we need to give teachers the space to be creative, too, and figure out what works for them and the students in their classes.

I suggest following the brain-targeted teaching model, just as you would in a classroom setting. Start by creating an emotional connection with your class. You can start classes with some relaxation techniques or by having people reflect on how they feel. Make sure to check in with students about what their space looks like – what is their physical environment? How’s the broadband working? What do they like about being online and what don’t they like? Take the time to get some feedback from your students than just assigning them something to read and asking them questions about it. Make connections right from the start so everyone is engaged.

I also think it can be beneficial to use concept maps (visual representations of knowledge) to help students learn more about the larger context of material. We’ve seen good success with arts-integrated learning units, too. When you can find a way to put art into learning, to not be so reliant on texts, you can use the arts as a way to help students learn and to express what they know. That could include making a poster, doing some kind of improvisation, or writing a song. Teachers can find ways to make the content interesting and help students do better with creative thinking and problem solving when they integrate the arts, too.

What can parents and students do to get the most out of the online education experience?

That’s not easy to answer either. Many parents may be challenged by trying to help their children at home. It’s not easy to assume the role of the teacher! That said, I think you can help by trying to make the content as relevant and real as possible. And if you aren’t comfortable with a particular math skill or other piece of content, find other resources. There are great options like Khan Academy that can fill in some gaps. But one of the greatest things you can do is find ways to show your children how learning can be applied in real life. If you are cooking, engage your child in measurement and talk about fractions. If you are building a deck, have your child help you figure out area and perimeter. With Language Arts, everyone can read the same book and have discussions at the dinner table. If your child is interested in a particular topic, encourage them to go out and research it themselves. You don’t have to try to do exactly what the teacher does to help your students learn.

What about engagement? Many online learning models last spring did not require students to check in all that often. What kind of engagement should teachers and parents be expecting in the fall?

You want daily engagement. That requirement, of course, will vary by school districts. But I can’t imagine not having at least daily check-ins with the students. It may not always be possible, due to technology or other issues, but I would hope that school districts would push for more engagement to make sure we are reaching as many students as we can.

I’ve been so heartened by seeing the stories of teacher and principals earlier this year going out to the homes of students they couldn’t reach online just to check in. It makes you realize that the hearts of teachers really are pretty big. I’m glad they are being recognized for going above and beyond the call of duty to make sure they can stay in contact with their students. I imagine there may be more of that for some online students in the fall.

That said, engagement may not look the same as it did when students were in the classroom. A lot of the things we all relied on for our education and our social lives will be put on hold for a bit. But I think, with daily check-ins, teachers can get a good idea of where their students are at and what they may need to move forward.

A lot of learning at school comes from small group projects and social interactions. How can we help manage those gaps if students are learning from home?

Teachers can assign group projects online. There may be four students who work together to solve a problem or create a project. You can create smaller Zoom rooms, for example, or find other ways for these groups to connect online. The kind of learning management systems that teachers are using probably vary widely across the country. They may limit the degree to which they can group students or let them collaborate. But finding ways to let students connect with other students, in a way that’s focused with content and curriculum, doesn’t have to go away with remote instruction. And I don’t think it should.

While the best way to move forward continues to be debated, most educators agree there will be some kind of learning loss once students do get back to school full-time. What should educators and parents be doing now to make sure everyone can best meet students where they are at when the crisis is over?

I just received an email from the principal of one of the schools we work with. It’s a Title I school. She has children at that school who have devices and can handle the work, but she also has children who aren’t engaging. My suggestion would be to focus on those students who aren’t engaging. One thing I’m hearing from different districts is that, as they consider how to bring students back, they are thinking about bringing back the more vulnerable children first – whether they are students with disabilities, who speak English as a second language, or who struggle in the textual world. That group should also include the students who were just off the grid for some reason. The students who are most vulnerable should be the ones who come back first and if we can offer remedial efforts for those groups, in whatever form that might take, we should be able to make sure there isn’t too much of an educational loss. Catching those students up should be the first priority.

Mariale Hardiman also co-authored a piece with Martha Bridge Denckla, M.D., in 2009 for our Cerebrum magazine, “The Science of Education: Informing Teaching and Learning through the Brain Sciences