How to Engage Students in Remote Learning

project-based learning

Teaching is a wonderful yet demanding task when students are physically present in a classroom. But it’s a whole other level of challenge when they’re learning from home. Online learning or virtual instruction has been available since the beginning of the Internet. This model has primarily been used by colleges, universities, and corporations. However, in recent months due to school closures many teachers have been offering their classes remotely.

There are strategies educators can use to not only deal with this new situation, but also transform the education model to inspire students. This article outlines factors to consider when teaching in a virtual classroom and provides links to helpful resources to support learning.

Design Meaningful Lessons to Engage Learners

A challenge to remote learning is designing lessons that spark student interest. Often it can seem like school has become one boring worksheet after another. To overcome this hurdle engage students with real world connections. Design lessons that pose authentic problems and offer topics to which students can personally relate. As they investigate these issues and propose solutions, students are more involved and motivated.

Project-based learning is the essence of all TechnoKids materials. At first glance, this instructional approach may seem too difficult to implement using a remote learning model. However, each TechnoKids technology project includes lessons that have step-by-step instructions with illustrations that explain how to complete a task. Resources such as sample files, provide examples of completed work. As well, templates jump start creativity. TechnoKids makes it easy to support learners as they complete meaningful tasks from home.

Empower students with challenges to explore real world issues in your virtual classroom. Hook student interest with role playing. As they recognize relevance, students are inspired to learn. Two projects that are an ideal fit for middle or high school students are:

meaningful projects
  • TechnoWonderland: Students become marketing executives for an amusement park. They solve a variety of challenges as they develop technology skills.
  • TechnoTravel: Students play the role of a travel agent. They construct a travel advertisement to promote a weekend getaway.

Provide Activities for Multiple Devices

Another hurdle to overcome when lesson planning for a virtual classroom is access to technology. At school, typically the hardware is standardized so that everyone has the same device. However, when working from home, students have a variety of devices.

Teaching in an online classroom is similar to a BYOD program. Students could have desktop computers, laptops, or tablets such as Chromebooks or iPads. Or perhaps, they only have access to smart phones. As well, the operating system varies. It could be Windows, Mac, or Android.

Curriculum should allow students to achieve success using any hardware configuration. The challenge is to offer assignments or projects that are open-ended enough to be successfully completed using any computing device.

remote learning

TechnoKids projects will work with a wide-range of hardware and software. Teachers can download multiple versions of the same lesson from TechnoHub. Assignments are available for Google Apps, Microsoft Office Online, Office 2019, Office 2016, or Office 2013. This allows teachers to provide instruction that will work on any device. Everyone in the class can be learning the same thing, using different technology. Two popular projects that are ideal for remote learning are:

  • TechnoToon is a fun digital story-telling project. Students can create their animated cartoon using a browser such as Chrome or Safari and Google Apps, or Microsoft Edge and Office Online, or a desktop version of Microsoft Office. There are many options.
  • TechnoNewsletter has students create a fan club publication. They can use Google Docs, Microsoft Word Online, or Microsoft Word 2019, 2016, or 2013.

Differentiate Instruction

A further challenge to teaching remotely can be meeting the needs of all learners. Not all students are the same. Each has unique abilities. A child may have a learning disability or English as a second language. This requires teachers to modify tasks to accommodate individual needs. This can be done ahead of time, as part of curriculum planning, but is often done in the moment – which can be difficult when teaching virtually.

In a school setting, when a child raises their hand, the teacher can provide assistance immediately. The educator can assess the student’s needs and then apply a different approach to explain a concept or adjust expectations. This personalizes learning.

Moreover, when students are working from home, visual cues that show frustration are no longer present. This prevents the teacher from instantly making the necessary modifications to meet the needs of the learner.

When learning remotely, one way to accommodate all learners is to use lessons that have activities with varying degrees of difficulty. All children receive the same assignment. However, students can select from a list of choices. This allows them to complete the task that suits their ability.

TechnoKids projects provide a range of tasks that support all learners. One project that offers a wide-range of activities to differentiate instruction is TechnoCode:

  • TechnoCode sparks an interest in computer science. Students create games, puzzles, mazes, animations, stories and more using Scratch 3. Teachers and/or students can pick and choose activities. Younger students may just complete the first three sessions. Middle school grades can continue on to the computational thinking challenges of Sessions 4 to 6. Assignments include challenges with varying degrees of difficulty.

Provide a Flexible Pace

Another consideration when teaching remotely is scheduling the pace of instruction. Students may not have access to devices throughout the day, as parents or siblings could be using the technology. This restricts the ability to complete assignments in a timely fashion.

Be accommodating in setting timelines and goals. Ideally, activities should be flexible and allow each student to progress at their own pace. There are great resources that allow teachers to personalize learning. OneNote and Google Classroom let you set assignments for individual students. You can pick and choose what and when to give to each student according to their needs and progress. TechnoKids offers support and step-by-step instructions on how to set up a Google Classroom or Class Notebook.

TechnoKids projects are ideal for self-paced learning. Two projects that students will enjoy are:

  • TechnoBookmaking has a collection of templates to publish a tiny picture book, a flip flap story, a riddle book, an accordion book, and many more. Mix and match! Complete as many as you want, in any order you want.
  • TechnoRestaurateur has students take the role of an entrepreneur developing a new franchise. Depending on which learning objectives teachers select, they can choose and omit assignments. For example, if spreadsheet skills are important, include all of the calculation and graphing activities and leave out the floor plan and logo designs.

Host Class Discussions that are Interactive

distance learning

Class discussions are an integral part of the learning process. Students can express ideas, ask questions, gain knowledge, and develop a fresh perspective. When instruction is delivered online, instead of in-person, the experience is somewhat different. However, technology provides unique ways for students to communicate with one another.

Face-to face instruction using online tools such as Zoom, Skype, or Microsoft Teams allows everyone to connect. The etiquette requires that only one person can talk at a time, or else it is difficult to hear. Although, this is the case in the regular classroom, it is even more important in a virtual setting.

To keep everyone actively involved in the discussion, teachers can ask questions that are responded to using the built-in chat feature. This gives everyone a chance to share their ideas. You can ensure that students know that their perspective and individual viewpoints are valued by posting emoticons to individual comments. For example, a thumbs-up, smiley face, or animated sun are some ways to respond to contributions.

Another way to invite others to share their opinion is to offer polls. By keeping instruction interactive you can verify that everyone is participating. Moreover, this will help students to feel part of the conversation, which makes them less likely to tune out.

Another way to engage learners is to share your screen. This allows you to demonstrate a concept or clarify a misunderstanding. If using a TechnoKids project, it is a simple way to show the steps to complete an assignment. For example

  • In TechnoBudget, students budget for a shopping spree. They organize the items using a spreadsheet. By sharing your screen you can demonstrate how to create formulas and graph data. In addition, you could have students justify their purchasing decisions in a lively online discussion.
  • In TechnoMap, students produce an interactive map. There are significant differences between creating a map using Google Slides, Microsoft PowerPoint, and PowerPoint Online. A virtual discussion is a great way to clarify the task, help students select a version, and answer questions. You can model sample maps by sharing your screen.

Invite Student Input and Welcome Personal Choice

Since online learning can be alienating to some learners, inviting student input is more important than ever. Students enjoy having choice. They like their opinions and interests to matter. For many, it gives them a feeling of empowerment. It also is motivating, because the assigned task is personally meaningful.

To simplify teaching in a virtual classroom, have students complete the same assignment. However, let them choose their topic. Everyone is learning the identical skills, but with different content.

Most TechnoKids projects allow students to pick a topic, area of personal interest, or unique and creative focus.

  • In TechnoEarth, students become environmental stewards. Each student picks a topic of personal, local, or international concern. Then they design an interactive infographic to create a powerful call to action.
  • In TechnoSite, students build a website. They choose their own areas of interest as the topics for the web pages.

Collaborate with Others

What students are missing most when they aren’t in a classroom is social interaction. Compensate by assigning work that requires students to work with others. Their level of engagement will grow, as will the essential skills of effective communication and accountability.

Many TechnoKids projects make use of the collaboration tools available through technology.

  • TechnoDebate has students work with a partner to take opposing positions on a controversial issue. They work together to prepare an animated slideshow to support each side, respond to arguments with a rebuttal, and answer audience questions online.
  • TechnoBlog allows students to express their opinions and expertise as they post a series of articles. Peers read, write, and comment on their work to develop digital citizenship skills.
  • TechnoQuestionnaire invites students to design questions to research opinions of a sample group of their classmates on an authentic issue. They analyze the results and present their findings to their peers.

Provide Self Assessment Tools

Working remotely can make some learners disengage. To encourage fundamental personal skills such as responsibility, self-direction, and self-confidence, include tools that allow students to measure their own progress. As students rate themselves, they develop critical thinking and problem-solving techniques. These tools can be checklists, rubrics, journals, or marking criteria. They help students consider what they have learned and how to do better.

checklist

TechnoKids projects all include a variety of assessment resources for both teacher and student. Most student workbooks have checklists both at the end of the project and often throughout each stage, such as a research outline or a planning organizer.

  • TechnoTurtle uses the Python Turtle Library to teach basic programming and ignite an interest in computer science. Each session has Review Questions. Students complete a variety of checklists as they create a Mad Lib and a Carnival Game. They reflect on their learning by answering questions for a coding journal.
  • TechnoAdvertise has students play the role of an advertising executive design a variety of publications. They review checklists for a product catalog and advertising flyer before they submit work for evaluation. Marking sheets for the five publications are provided for self-evaluation as well as teacher assessment.

Turn Learning into a Game and Celebrate Achievements

Gamification, the use of game-like concepts, can be used to stimulate learning, celebrate successes, and simply add fun to curriculum. Teachers know the value of stars, progress bars, and any type of positive reinforcement. As adults, we collect loyalty points to get rewards such as coffee, groceries, or travel miles. In the absence of a personal touch, certificates and badges given online can remind students that they are progressing and that their efforts are recognized.

remote learning

TechnoKids projects reward students for their efforts. Every title includes a certificate of completion and a parent letter outlining technology learning objectives that have been achieved. As well, projects include many encouragements for students and strategies to add fun to schoolwork.

  • TechnoInternet is a series of lessons that teach Internet safety, search strategies, digital citizenship, and more. Included in the resources is a map on which students can track the places they have visited: e-Library, e-Playground, e-Media Center, and more. When finished, they receive an Internet Citizenship Card.
  • TechnoTrivia teaches students to build a quiz with a variety of questions, an answer key, and feedback. Planning, research, communication, and analysis skills are developed through a fun, game-like activity.
gamify

Teach Debugging to Beginners to Build Confidence

It is important to teach debugging to beginners right away. Debugging is when a programmer finds “bugs” or errors in their code and fixes them to improve the program. This is an essential programming skill. So much so, that it should be taught at the beginning of a coding unit.

Where Were the Debugging Strategies in the Instructional Materials and Python Courses?

When I was asked to develop Python materials for TechnoKids Inc. I jumped at the chance. I began to read books about Python. They had titles emphasizing that the instructions inside were for “absolute beginners”. I noticed that none had activities or advice on debugging. Instead, if the code I was copying from the page didn’t work I was left guessing why. It was frustrating!

My reaction was one that I knew students would feel. I worried that young programmers might begin to think “I am not good at programming” when they encountered an error they could not fix. This belief might turn them away from learning more about coding. I knew it was necessary to reframe how students respond to mistakes in their programs. They needed to feel empowered, not defeated.

The books were helpful in understanding the types of instructional materials available to teachers on teaching Python – but I needed to learn more!

I wanted to understand the difference between what young children and young adults were learning about Python. I signed up for a first year course at the university where I did my undergraduate degree. This course did have a section on debugging, but it was at the end of the course. I asked the professor why it was introduced so late and was told it was because beginners could not understand the error messages until they had learned how to code. As a result, I spent a good portion of the course inefficiently applying debugging strategies. I knew there had to be a better way!

When it came time to create the TechnoKids Python STEM projects I had reached a decision…debugging needed to be taught right away. I wanted students to be able to understand the meaning of the errors they would see. More importantly, I knew they needed simple strategies to fix their code.

teach debugging to beginners

Teach debugging to beginners.

What Happens When the Program Keeps Shouting ‘You Are Wrong’…But You Don’t Know How to Make it Right?

When Students Lack Debugging Strategies, Red X’s Tell the Learner They Can’t Code

During my investigation of Python programming with kids I noticed that there were common errors made. These mistakes would trigger several responses by the IDLE Python program. The Python Editor Window, which is where programmers build the code, will display a box with a red x on Windows devices. Those are for syntax or indent errors. In this case, there might be a forgotten bracket or # in front of a comment: simple to fix, but not without knowledge of debugging.

The angry red x’s that show up on the screen mock a novice. Unintentionally they seem to say “you can’t code”. To prevent students from becoming discouraged, teachers should provide strategies for decoding error messages. This will build confidence and promote independence.

syntax and indent error boxes in Python

When a student lacks debugging strategies the Python error messages can be a source of frustration.

When Students Lack Debugging Strategies, They Can’t Find the Problem

Another technique the IDLE Python program uses to assist programmers is to identify a spot within the code where there is an issue. This is accomplished with a reddish-pink box around text. The skilled programmer knows to look BEFORE the highlight.

However, those without debugging strategies can stare at the code forever and never know what is wrong. This is because children and young adults are literal. They look at the reddish-pink text and say “Oh, the problem is right HERE”. Beginners lack sufficient knowledge to locate the error. This shortcoming can easily be overcome by explicitly teaching debugging strategies.

Python error

The word highlighted is not the error. It is the missing bracket BEFORE shape.

When Students Lack Debugging Strategies, Red Text Tells a Beginner They Do Not Understand How to Program

The error response by the IDLE Python program is to show a message in the Python Shell. The text is red. It often tells the programmer there is a name or type error. These errors can occur if a library is not imported, a command is spelled wrong, a variable is not used properly in the code, or a sentence does not use the correct punctuation for joining text with variables. The Python message identifies the line number and reason for the problem. However, with no debugging strategies it can seem like gibberish.

The red text in the Python Shell is the equivalent of using a red pen to grade student work. Many educators have given up this practice as it promotes self-esteem issues, which can turn students away from wanting to learn. Studies have show that for many learners red pen is like ALL CAPS. It yells “You are wrong!” When red text is the method for highlighting errors, it can make a student feel angry or sad. This is avoidable when educators teach debugging to beginners at the start of a coding unit.

Python error messages can seem like gibberish to beginners.

Teach Debugging to Beginners at the Start of a Coding Unit

To avoid making students feel bad about themselves, why not just give students perfect code to copy? Then when they run the program, no errors will happen. Or if they do, they can quickly refer to their sample to find the typo. Problem solved!

No. Not really.

The limitation to this instructional approach is that it restricts learning. One of the goals of teaching a STEM project should be to support students so they produce their own original creations. Aside from developing programming skills, the learning objectives in a programming unit should include: fostering an interest in programming, developing computational thinking skills, and applying logic and reasoning to solve a problem. The aim should not be improving typing skills.

Spark an ongoing interest in programming. Teach debugging strategies at the beginning of a coding unit. This will build confidence and promote independence.

Python Lessons that Explicitly Teach Debugging to Beginners

Teachers need to deliberately teach debugging strategies at the start of a programming unit. This empowers students. Using this instructional approach, the TechnoTurtle STEM project includes activities that teach students about common errors and how to fix the code.

TechnoTurtle has 30 coding assignments. Elementary and middle students solve mazes, create artwork, and build games. Several of the lessons emphasize debugging strategies. They are interwoven throughout the project to introduce or reinforce computer science concepts:

  • Edit a Python Program: Modify values to understand the purpose of code.
  • Bug Zapper: Add mistakes to a program to learn how to debug Python.
  • Clean Up the Code: Fix coding errors by selecting from the list of choices.
  • Trial and Error: Test different ideas to move a Turtle through a maze.
  • Draw a Robot: Write one line of code at a time and make corrections as you go.
  • Edit an Invitation: Change code to discover how to join text with variables.

The Power of an Infographic

As an alternative to report writing or giving a presentation, an infographic is a compelling way for students to demonstrate their learning. Due to its visual nature, an infographic portrays facts, data, images, and a call to action in a convincing and appealing format. When we teach students the tools for designing their own infographics, they acquire a variety of essential skills. Here’s a list of the values of teaching students how to build an infographic.

infographic

Apply Research Skills

In order to present the facts and images that are fundamental for an infographic, students need to build search skills. In a couple of recent blogs, we outlined some tips for teaching explicit strategies for online research. Limited reading and scanning skills, irrelevant sites, advertising, and biased websites are stumbling blocks to students finding reliable, appropriate results quickly. If we teach them how to search, they will achieve greater success in finding trustworthy information fast. Making an infographic is a great way for students to boost their search skills.

Develop Digital Literacy

An infographic can be designed for almost any subject area. Topics in science, geography, visual arts, history, and language arts can all be expressed using images and brief text. Multiple technology skills are developed:

  • graphic design
  • digital citizenship
  • online search strategies
  • communication and word processing
  • web-based publishing

Promote Critical Thinking

An infographic has very limited text. When creating this type of document, a student needs to evaluate all the information and determine which facts are most important and engaging. An infographic has different sections, so they need to organize the layout in a logical way. Finally, the headings of each block of information must be interesting to capture audience attention. Therefore students must synthesize, paraphrase, and describe the topic in brief but intriguing titles. These skills are in the top two levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, evaluation and synthesis, where students master the most complex learning tasks.

Inspire Creativity

Infographics are lots of fun to create! Choosing layouts, picking color themes, drawing icons,
listing fun facts, making an image carousel, and displaying surprising numerical data are just some of the elements to design and construct. Students find it highly motivating to make an original infographic. Spark the interest of students from Grades 6 and up with a novel assignment. Inspire them to make unique infographics that both demonstrate their learning as well as inform others.

Develop Real World Communication Techniques

An infographic presents a topic using universally recognized symbols and images. Text is brief and enticing to attract and hold the viewer’s attention. Students need to understand the topic, but they also have to convey it in an authentic way that will captivate readers. An infographic is likely to be web-based, so it should mirror contemporary media. There is a lot of information to compete with, so it must be accurate and convincing. The student isn’t writing a report for the limited audience of one teacher. It is being written for the public. Quality, grammar, vocabulary and tone are critical with a global audience.


Learn How to Create an Infographic with TechnoEarth

technoearth icon

TechnoKids’ newest project, TechnoEarth, instructs students how to build an infographic about an environmental issue. They play the role of environmental stewards as they design an interactive infographic about an important problem. They learn how to outline the cause, harmful effects, stakeholders, location, and solutions using a highly engaging format. Learn more about TechnoEarth here.

Boost Online Search Strategies: A Fun Activity

In the previous post, we listed a set of tips to develop online search strategies. Try this skill building activity with middle school students to apply those tips and raise awareness of ways to find trustworthy information fast.

technoearth icon

This activity is from TechnoKids technology project TechnoEarth. In this project, students learn how to use Google Sites to design an interactive infographic about an environmental issue. The search activity below is a Skill Review from Session 1, in which students learn about environmental stewardship and infographics. Then they pick a topic of their choice and use a template to research the cause, harmful effects, stakeholders, location, and solution.


Explore Online Search Strategies

1. Try many keywords

search strategies

Some topics use different terms to mean the same thing. For example, both algal bloom and algae bloom refer to lots of algae in water. Compare the search results for algal bloom and algae bloom. Look at the list of sites, questions, images, or videos on the page.

  • Are the results the same for algal bloom and algae bloom?
  • If no, which keyword do you think is the best? Why?

2. Be specific

boost search strategies

Pretend your research topic is poaching of rhinos.

  • What is a solution to the problem?
  • To narrow the search results, what phrase did you use?

3. Pick from the dropdown menu

search drop down

The dropdown menu in the search box suggests keywords. Let’s say you are researching smog. List two suggested phrases you think would be helpful.

4. Refer to People also ask

search people ask

Many people ask questions about environmental issues. Search for plastic pollution. List a question from the People also ask section that you find interesting.

5. Check the URL

search strategies

The website address can give a clue about who made the web page. Find a government website about overfishing. The URL might end .gov or .gc.ca.

  • What is the URL?

6. Skim and Scan

skim and scan

Save time! Find a website about harmful effects of acid rain. Scan the search results for words that match the facts you need.

  • Which search result do you think will be the best? List the title.
  • Scan the description. Which keywords are in bold text?

technoearth
Design an infographic using Google Sites. Improve research skills and search strategies.