The Hidden Benefits of Distance Learning
One of the first assignments for our ecology unit is telling students to go outside and just… look. Observe what’s around them. Notice the noise levels, the abundance or absence of animals, how plants behave at various points in the day. Select a tree — any tree — and take note of how it looks at various times, over the course of days or weeks.
These observations, which occur at times convenient to students’ schedules and in a place of their choosing, are a key component of our ecology unit — and a way in which distance learning offers students opportunities for observation that they would not have in an in-person class.
While we recognize that many educators are not excited about distance learning, we wanted to share some of the benefits we have experienced while teaching in a distance learning setting. In this article, we’re specifically discussing distance learning (as opposed to online learning), since this term encompasses work that students complete both online and offline in a setting other than an in-person classroom.
We both work in San Lorenzo Unified School District: Samantha currently teaches at Arroyo High School, and Jim taught there previously for 32 years. More than half the students at Arroyo receive free or reduced price lunch. Most will be first in their families to attend college. We have one level for our 9th grade Living Earth (biology) class, which includes students receiving special services and emerging bilinguals. We’ve eliminated both honors and remedial courses for 9th grade science. Additionally, AP Biology at Arroyo is open to anyone who successfully completed Living Earth and either the “Chemistry in the Earth Systems” or geology courses. Our goal — which we’ve accomplished — was to make our AP classes representative of the student demographics of our campus. While we usually are 100% in-person learning (except for homework!), we had to shift to 100% distance learning in March 2020 and began the 2020-21 school year that way as well. This transition has required huge shifts both in mindset and pedagogy, and we are constantly learning and revising as we go.
Distance learning allows for student choice and self-pacing.
We normally begin the academic year by introducing students to the idea that anyone can do science. We show a Scientists at Work video synchronously and then have students share what they notice about the researcher in the video. However, we want to emphasize to them that there are different ways to be a scientist and do science, so we conduct a class poll (via Zoom polling) and have students watch an additional video of their choice for out-of-class work. The Zoom poll says, “Which of the following describes how the scientist was doing science?” and allows students to select as many answers as they want. All the options are from the Scientists at Work videos (ex.: She was asking questions. They were collecting data. They were using technology, etc.). They use the How Science Works Interactive Tool to track what they see the scientists doing in the video they choose to watch, to better understand that there isn’t a single “scientific method” and that science can be messy, iterative, and nonlinear.
By completing this assignment asynchronously, students can select how and when they want to work; this allows students to choose a Scientists at Work video they are particularly interested in or identify with, instead of that video being solely dictated by the teacher. Building in student choice grants them a feeling of empowerment and enables student agency in a class. It also reduces the amount that students compare answers with each other or focus on the “right answer.” Because students are working separately, they are more willing to take risks or think creatively, and there’s less fear of embarrassment or judgment when we come together as a class to discuss what they’ve outlined.
Distance learning doesn’t always mean online learning.
One of the key advantages we see in distance learning is that we can get students outside, in whatever natural space they have access to, to observe their environments and begin to see the connections and relationships within ecosystems. These natural spaces may include a common area in an apartment complex, a yard, a nearby park, etc. Students can self-pace their work in asynchronous distance learning, meaning students who have other obligations during school hours can complete assignments as their schedules allow. One of the other benefits is that we, as a class, also get to see a larger diversity of ecological areas, allowing students to compare and contrast, rather than having everyone analyze the same data.
For our ecology unit, we begin by having students study a particular place. They begin to connect with that space and can track data (organism presence and abundance, noise levels, changes in abiotic factors) over time. When we come together to discuss their observations, each student has something to meaningfully contribute. Because students are making their own observations, they feel an added level of ownership over their work, which in turn promotes them completing asynchronous work in the future. We find that students are ready and excited to communicate with their classmates during synchronous learning.
By having students complete portions of this work asynchronously — and by bringing their own experiences to the discussion — we’re able to use synchronous meeting time prioritizing relationship-building and focusing on collaborative, “group-worthy” work. All students not only contribute individually in order to construct group models of how relationships work in ecosystems, but are also responsible for being able to explain the group representation with everyone else’s ideas. Additionally, group products are richer because students are focused on negotiating components of their models that both reflect the ecosystems they personally observed and patterns they notice across ecosystems. As in a face-to-face setting, this experience serves as an entry point into further exploration of trophic cascades, including the suite of resources related to the short film Some Animals Are More Equal than Others: Keystone Species and Trophic Cascades. Students synchronously engage with clips from the video, as well as working through the Exploring Trophic Cascades Click & Learn in pairs or small groups. We circle back to these phenomena later in the year with the “Modeling Trophic Cascades” card sort activity, and it’s a great way to connect human impact (our final unit) with ecosystem dynamics (our first unit).
Distance learning allows for authentic assessment.
In both in-person and distance learning settings, we focus on assessing student mastery of concepts. For example, because we begin our ecology lesson sequence by asking students to apply what they’ve observed in their own environments to understanding trophic relationships in the kelp forest, we then assess them by having them apply their understanding to a different ecosystem such as the Serengeti.
In a distance setting, we generally use performance tasks, such as having students use data from the BiomeViewer Click & Learn, to discuss how abiotic factors can influence carrying capacity and nutrient cycling. Students look at two different California biomes and make a claim based on the data in the Click & Learn as to which ecosystem they would expect to be more biodiverse. Students include information about limiting factors, carrying capacity, ecosystem richness, and nutrient cycles when constructing a scientific explanation. Because this is a rich task, we don’t prohibit students from using their notes or other supporting resources to complete it. Our focus is on student mastery of concepts and not on preventing academic dishonesty, since students have to transfer their understanding of complex concepts to novel scenarios. It would be almost impossible for a student to Google an answer to a scientific explanation in a performance task like the one using BiomeViewer.
The notion that there are lots of different ways to demonstrate “smart” in a science class is the bedrock for us in building intrinsic motivation in our students. By providing student choice and open-ended questions, assignments, and assessments, we allow them the freedom and space to construct their own initial understanding of scientific concepts that can be built on throughout the rest of the course. This approach, rather than just assigning points for completion of assignments, works in both in-person and distance learning settings.
We also find that positive feedback and affective learning, rather than assigning points for completion, motivates students to complete work in a distance setting. Students will express that they accomplished something they initially didn’t think they were capable of or relate to one of the scientists shown in a video as their intrinsic motivation for completing work. And the more relevant the work is to them, the more motivated they are to do it.
Distance learning allows for flexibility and grace.
The feedback we got from students last year was that they really liked choice in what they were doing, and that distance learning allowed for different ways to access content, such as videos, Click & Learns, or reading. We do try to streamline how we communicate with students, including having a consistent learning management system and conferencing platform across their classes. We also give them time during synchronous class meetings to set up any documents or resources (e.g., Google Docs, Jamboards, etc.) they need to complete collaborative work outside class time. Students appreciated not having to work under time pressure, and we’ve gotten better work from students as a result of removing time as a factor. For example, Jamboard is an excellent free tool for setting up the Understanding Global Change Interactive Tool. The background image can be made into the background of the Jamboard, and specific icons can be turned into sticky notes for students to use in their model. This way, we can curate the icons to specific content (e.g., ecosystem interactions) and have students model collaboratively asynchronously. Students can then use the Understanding Global Change Interactive Tool to build an individual model based on the understanding they developed with their group.
Students are also, understandably, scared by the pandemic and disappointed about not experiencing some of the hallmarks of the high school experience. We want to give them learning experiences that reconnect them with their environments and give them recognition for the work they’ve done. Synchronous instruction allows them to momentarily step into a classroom community where they can contribute meaningfully in a variety of ways. We try to be understanding about the fact that students may not be able to complete work in the same timeframe as they did before the pandemic.
Distance learning allows for collaboration and community connection.
We’ve used the shift to distance learning as an opportunity to connect with other educators, scientists, and our students’ families and communities. We’ve been able to reach out to scientists such as Neil Shubin, who’s featured in the BioInteractive Your Inner Fish series, to arrange for digital classroom visits.
Because distance learning is unconstrained by physical classroom space, it’s easier to combine classes with another teacher for a day or a series of lessons. For instance, this year, we are planning to combine our ecology classes with our 9th grade English classes so that students can practice both creative and expository writing about their ecosystem observations, specifically their phenology tree, which they observe at least once every month. This allows us to weave science and English together in an authentic way.
We have built in student-to-student mentoring between 10th graders and incoming students to help them transition to the high school experience. Normally, student-mentors have to find time in their course schedules for this, but distance learning allows for more flexibility for students and therefore more opportunity to mentor others. This also provides a way for our 10th graders to demonstrate a different kind of “smart” and for our 9th graders to have resources that may be less intimidating than high school teachers to ask for help on content, distance learning, or high school in general.
Lastly and most importantly, distance learning provides opportunities to connect with students’ families and communities. Students bring their younger siblings to class to take part in discussions. They can bring pets to observe as natural objects. They also have an increased ability to discuss what they’re doing and learning with their families, and can invite their families to take part in data collection or other lesson experiences.
We encourage educators to see distance learning as an opportunity to rethink or re-imagine some of their existing class structures and appreciate it for what it is rather than what it isn’t. We are encouraged by what our students are currently doing in a distance learning format, as their engagement and excitement levels are high as they interact with the ecology content specifically designed for distance learning success. Their enthusiasm helps remind us to appreciate distance learning opportunities for what they are rather than focusing on the deficits associated with not seeing our students in person.
Jim Clark was the district science coordinator for San Lorenzo Unified School District in California, where he was responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). He taught biology, AP Biology, and honors anatomy and physiology at Arroyo High School in the San Lorenzo Unified School District for 32 years and was recognized as Alameda County Teacher of the Year in 2008. Jim was on the reading committee for the California NGSS Framework and is currently on the writing team for California State NGSS rollouts.
Samantha Johnson is currently a teacher at Arroyo High School, where she teaches Living Earth and AP Biology. She is also the lead teacher in the Academy of Health and Medicine (a California Partnership Academy) and a member of the NGSS leadership team for the San Lorenzo Unified School District. Samantha served on the California NGSS Framework reading committee and currently serves with Jim on the writing team for California State NGSS rollouts. She was the board president for the California Institute for Biodiversity, where she looked for innovative ways to deliver professional development focused on getting students outside.
Paul Strode introduces the concepts of species richness and diversity through an outdoor data collection activity to help his students ask authentic scientific questions, collect real data, and communicate like scientists.
If you're interested in using formative assessments in an online setting, this Educator Voices article from Valerie May details how she uses a variety of online tools to assess her students’ understanding of factors that regulate populations.
Reflection questions that help students probe deeply into the material work well in both online and in-person courses. In this Educator Voices article, Tara Jo Holmberg outlines how she uses reflection questions in online courses with her community college students.