Consider Organizing Instruction Differently to Ease Online Transition

Jeff Rubenstein
Updated May 26 2020
Jeff Rubenstein
Updated May 26 2020

As with most of us, my mind is on assisting schools to get online. Each organization will have its unique challenges during this transition, especially around scalability – and I don’t want to claim that any of this will be easy. Especially when there are so many long-standing systems and processes in place; and changes in one place may well cause problems elsewhere.


But just to think big for the moment: The move to online delivery creates challenges, to be sure. Especially in getting teachers and students to use the new tools, each with their own possibilities and limitations.


However, there is one potential advantage to this move — it gives us the ability to rethink some of our processes, and question how we might deliver instruction at greater scale. Especially wen we can take advantage of the scalability of digital tools to mitigate some of the challenges that this move will create.


For by going digital, we can solve not just limitations on the learner side, but limitations on the instructional side. For students it can help can solve the problems of distance (we can deliver to students anywhere) and scale of delivery (we can deliver to an indefinite number of students at a time); and it can also help solve the problems of distance for teachers (we can use teachers anywhere) and the fact that experts are a limited resource. That is, we have an opportunity to more easily spread the instructional load across those experts.


If you’re in a university, you probably already have a model for this: many of the core courses are often taught by a professor and then sections are run by TAs. This can be replicated in a digital environment. More broadly, this can be done system-wide across all the schools in the system, or all the schools in a consortium (especially for introductory courses which do not vary greatly from one to another). For example, a biology professor at one university could be teaching simultaneously to all the other schools in the system. Then at each school, professors or TAs as appropriate can handle the small class groups as they have always done. Professors could also rotate teaching online, so as to spread the effort across the entire staff.


There is also already a model for instructional designers to assist professors with creating their content and publishing it inside the LMS. This can also be replicated in an online environment: Several of the virtual classroom tools allow a third party (an instructional design resource, a TA, a video producer) to set up the virtual room in advance with any combination of required documents: powerpoint decks, videos, etc. so that all the professor needs to do is log in and teach. An assistant can also run the session technologies such as polls, quizzes, etc. including answering some student questions.


If you’re in a K12 school, we can potentially pool students in a building, in a district, or even across districts. We could then have multiple groups of students taught together at the same time by a single instructor — at least for the “content delivery” part of the session. If your virtual conference tool permits virtual breakout rooms, you can then have other teachers in the session work with students in smaller groups, only needing to teach during part of the time that requires small groups. Alternately you could have one teacher pre-record (in a “flipped classroom”) model a lesson which gets sent to many classes of students to watch; those students could watch it together in real time with their individual class instructor. This again could take the load off each instructor and allow them to focus more on individual questions.


In a current experiment going on as we speak, the Israeli Ministry of Education is scheduling teachers to teach via a country-wide livestream. These teachers address a large number of students (at multiple schools) simultaneously; students can watch and learn in real-time, and then break into groups to work with teachers in individual classes. From a technical standpoint, this is easy to do. It is even easy to administer taken on its own; the challenge comes from old systems and processes that think along traditional lines.


Finally, if you want to pool students but they have different textbooks, you might even try at this point a transition to an OER textbook, or use an open-source curriculum like Great Minds. This could help you quickly standardize the instruction across buildings or districts, esp. for topics like math that will not vary much from textbook to textbook.


I know that many feel that “this is just not the time to experiment,” and — as I don’t know your individual circumstances — I won’t tell you that you should. I’ll just say that if you are able to, this is an opportunity to try some new things, and you may find that they work much better for you than what has been done up until now. And since this may become the new normal, I think it’s worth the effort.