May 06 2020

Remote Learning and Stone Soup

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This post is part of LPI's Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series, which explores evidence-based and equity-focused strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.

Schools, districts, educators, and families are not equally empowered to switch to distance education in response to the pandemic. Society has spent substantial resources attempting to “level the playing field” in public education, but forced remote learning is now highlighting how inequitable the conditions and resources are in students’ homes. Computers and other web-friendly devices and Internet access are readily available in some households, but many students from low-income families, who have special needs, or who are from marginalized groups may have little or no digital infrastructure. Complicating this challenge, some teachers have been well prepared to provide instruction across distance, but for most educators this is a new and challenging situation.

Overall, across our nation and the world, many effective instructional strategies are emerging from the creativity of individual teachers. Our opportunity to use remote learning as an opportunity to develop improved strategies of teaching, learning, and assessment is like the story of “stone soup,” a tale of a community coming together to add tasty offerings to what began as a pot of stones and hot water, resulting in innovative and delicious nourishment for all.

To compensate for inequities in access to digital devices and the Internet, many teachers are using multiple methods to deliver lessons. For students without Internet access (an estimated 7 million families nationwide), some districts are lending families educational devices from classrooms and using school buses as mobile hotspots to support home-based instruction. Others are using the borrowed devices with the offline versions of their application software. In some cases, teachers are mailing instructional materials or using school buses to deliver schoolwork to students and placing physical drop boxes at community locations for handing in homework. Elsewhere, teachers and districts are utilizing public television educational programming as a basis for curriculum, or creating their own public-access televised instruction.

Some schools and districts are developing systemic models for implementing distance education, including building the capacity of their teachers to engage in remote instruction. Miami-Dade, a large, high-poverty district in Florida that routinely experiences weather-related disruption to schooling, has a comprehensive approach to distance learning. This includes distributing devices and, more recently, providing special professional development for their teachers on how to shift to remote education during the pandemic. In California, the Lindsey Unified School District is leveraging its existing infrastructure for technology-infused learning by creating ways to adapt classroom strategies for competency-based, personalized learning to an online environment. In Massachusetts, Another Course to College (ACC) is a Boston Public Schools high school that prepares all its students for college. ACC has developed a comprehensive online portal that illustrates how, with typical per-pupil costs, schools can provide a rich range of instructional services remotely. The collaborative, guided learning-by-doing in its curriculum is still taking place. For example, teams of students are remotely designing personal protective equipment that is built in the school’s makerspace lab and donated to frontline first responders.

In any school and for all students, educators can move beyond standard content to focus on what is front-of-mind for learners: what is happening in their families and communities.

In any school and for all students, educators can move beyond standard content to focus on what is front-of-mind for learners: what is happening in their families and communities. For example, teachers are finding creative ways to infuse pandemic-related developments into their lessons. As described in my blog  titled, “Necessity is the Father of Transformation,” students can use social media apps on smart phones to work with peers on assignments, building their collaboration and communication skills across multiple media. Where more powerful computers and Internet access are available at home, teachers can draw on many federally funded learning resources to implement digital curricula based on cutting-edge research.

Despite these productive ways of addressing the distance-learning challenge, educators and other stakeholders are concerned about districts’ ability to provide equitable instruction for all students in the current environment. In many classroom settings, teachers deliver one-size-fits-all instruction, requiring students to move lockstep to cover curricular requirements, often to prepare for high-stakes tests. To achieve equitable outcomes, teachers do their best to provide special supports as needed on the edges of this industrial-era processing. The results are far from equitable, especially for students from low-income families, who have special needs, or who are from other marginalized groups. Personalized learning is even more crucial—and more challenging—in our current situation.

I believe this terrible human crisis offers unique opportunities to strategically respond to these challenges of inequity beyond just tactical interventions. Theory and evidence show the benefits of using innovative teaching strategies based on current knowledge about learning. These next-generation instructional models are characterized by:

  • utilizing collaborative, guided learning-by-doing to complement passive learning-by-assimilation;
  • providing students agency to include their personal interests in what they are learning, and infusing these into the curriculum to be covered;
  • complementing high-stakes tests with diagnostic/formative assessments that measure a broad range of knowledge and skills useful in life; and
  • involving many types of people as “teachers” in various life settings of students, extending learning outside the classroom and beyond the school day.

As this blog describes, all these desirable strategies are now being implemented in remote learning by well-prepared and supported teachers, whose creativity has been unleashed by reducing the constraints of compliance. In our present situation of remote-only interactions, these next-generation strategies are easier to use than industrial-era instruction. Further, educational models based on these strategies and implemented by well-prepared teachers produce outcomes that are more equitable and effective, as well as better suited to what students need for success in life. While taking steps to close the digital divide is critical, the challenges and the opportunities of distance learning go beyond providing access to devices and the Internet. Distance learning provides opportunities to explore and advance student-centered approaches, regardless of where schools, districts, teachers, and families are on the continuum from traditional instruction to next-generation learning.

As delineated in many strategies and examples emerging in the Silver Lining for Learning (SLL) initiative, tactically developing our capacity for next-generation learning now means that, when the pandemic recedes, we can strategically transform classrooms to advance learning and equity. On the SLL website, global examples from developing countries with far less societal wealth and resources illustrate how educators can deliver effective and equitable remote learning despite technical and economic barriers.

I believe the most difficult part of surmounting the challenges of remote learning is unlearning the psychological and cultural assumptions that impede us from using this opportunity to improve our practice. Through the creativity of supported educators, each with their own insights and strategies, we can contribute to an educationally nutritious “stone soup”—spiced with integrated instructional models and creative ways to bridge the digital divide—that can be used across a range of cultures and contexts.


Chris Dede is the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Technology, Innovation, and Education Program.