Going the distance: teacher tips for doing distance learning – better

We asked two Prague educators what works and what doesn't when it comes to distance-learning success over the long haul.

Marcus Bradshaw

Written by Marcus Bradshaw
Published on 24.03.2021 15:26 (updated on 25.03.2021)

Distance learning brings many challenges, ranging from technological hiccups to back pain and eye strain, and as children settle into remote education for the unforeseeable future, parents need to help them build stamina for learning at home. 

We spoke with two experienced teachers from The English College in Prague, a six-year grammar school in the Vysočany district, to see how they are rising to the challenge of teaching from a distance and what advice they'd give parents and children on the other side of the screen.

Daniel Ibbitson, Head of Computing and E-Learning Co-ordinator, said that The English College Prague was already using Google Apps for Education prior to lockdown, so the transition was rather seamless.

On Google Apps, "We can view all work in progress, we can have smaller breakout groups within each class and we also use a chat function, which allows for quick one-to-one communication," he says. "Also, Google Classroom allows us to publish all class assignments and take in submissions and we're then able to give the students written, verbal, and video feedback."

Emily Rankin, Deputy Head for Teaching and Learning, says that while the school prepared promptly for distance learning "Time spent adapting in-class activities for the online arena, such as collaborative presentations or Socratic discussion," took some adjusting to.

Both teachers recognize that it can be a challenge to motivate all pupils every day, but they are also inspired by how well students have performed under such challenging circumstances – and they are committed to helping their community get the most out of online learning for the duration. Here are their tips for doing distance learning, better:

The English College Prague building.
The English College Prague campus.

Morning routine is very important

“It's difficult to learn when one is tired or unprepared, so make sure your child is getting adequate sleep and waking up at the same time on school days, so there’s time to eat and clean up prior to lessons starting,” says Rankin.

“Proactively speak with them every day before and after school,” adds Ibbitson. “In the morning plan a to-do-list together, and after school, go through the list with your child, ensuring that everything is done or submitted."

Set up a dedicated workstation

“It’s very important to set up the workstation at a desk. This is school – not a chat with friends,” says Ibbitson. “Students need to have their normal school routine and sit at a desk while working.” 

Separation of spaces is essential – a student’s working environment must differ from their relaxing environment, or even their sleeping environment. Rankin notes that physical well-being is also critical: “Pay attention to ergonomics as much as possible; proper equipment and a comfortable, productive working space are crucial.”

In terms of equipment, “Get a webcam and microphone that work,” says Ibbitson. “Visual engagement makes a world of difference in learning. It also brings students as close as they can be to a normal classroom environment, as well as keeping some type of visual contact with other people.” At the ECP, students are required to keep their cameras on in lessons and participate actively rather than be passive participants, Rankin relays.

Develop long term study skills

Encourage your children's skill acquisition and try not to fret about "lost-learning," a current buzzword. Rankin says that The ECP has emphasized self-management skills and evidence-based ways to retain information. Ibbitson concurs: “Whether we are in the classroom or not, it is all about the quality of learning, not the quantity learned”. He said that if a student produces a poor evaluation or research analysis, the teacher finds out why and supports the student to develop a better piece of work rather than “moving on and receiving another four poor-quality pieces of work.” Rankin adds, “It’s important for schools to deliberately teach long-term, research-based study habits and model them in online lessons,” as the temptation is to cover as much material as possible, which can hurt students’ acquisition of knowledge and ability to think critically.

Ask your child to reflect on their work 

“Ask your child to reflect on what they’re doing well and what they could improve upon,” says Ibbitson. “This could be in the form of a weekly review – much like they have with their tutors in school and parents may have with their line managers.”

Rankin agrees on the importance of thoughtful review and positive reinforcement; “Once work is submitted, we should lead students through reflection and revision, emphasising skills that need development and pointing out the strengths as well.”

“If your child is struggling, communicate this with your child’s school. Encourage frequent breaks, keep them on a route and relay a positive, encouraging message about learning in these unique conditions,” says Rankin.

Lay out ground rules for computer use

Electronic devices are wonderful learning tools but also traps for disengagement. “It’s easy for students to slip into social media use and surf the internet on computers when they should be focused on lessons or completing assignments,” says Rankin. She suggests that parents have honest discussions with their children about their computer use, and in the case that teachers are relaying problems, consider monitoring what your children are working on.

Keep an open dialogue with your child

In these uncertain times, it’s not unknown for a child to become very frustrated, or even refuse to learn. If your child displays a sudden change in behaviour, it’s important to ask your child questions, says Ibbitson. Simple questions such as “Why? What has changed? What are the long and short term goals of this avenue? How can we help?” can help identify underlying problems. 

“Partner with school staff,” says Rankin, “and let your child know that their success matters to many. Be firm with rules that keep our child healthy and safe, such as staying off the internet during sleeping hours. If you suspect depression or anxiety, seek medical help.”

ECP during traditional classroom learning.
Traditional classroom learning at The English College Prague.

Enjoy this family time

Remote learning does have some positive aspects. “Many students are appreciating their extended time with their families," Ibbitson says. "However, there is no doubt that all of them are missing their friends." He feels ECP community members have been supportive of one another: "For staff and students alike, I think there is increased camaraderie... there is a ‘we are all in it together’ atmosphere.” 

He acknowledges that there is a desire for things to return to ‘normal’ but he is philosophical about making the most of every situation life throws at us – he advises that families “take advantage of the increased time with one another – this time next year you may regret not doing so.”

Keep in contact with the teacher

"If your child is struggling, communicate this to your child's school. Encourage frequent breaks, keep them on a routine, and relay a positive, encouraging message about learning in these unique conditions," says Rankin.

Ibbitson reminds parents not to hesitate to contact teachers with any problems. “Teachers are on your side,” he says. “We usually have more in-person contact with students than their parents, but now the tables have turned. If you think there is any issue, let us help you.”

This article was written in association with The English College in Prague. The English College in Prague – Anglické gymnazium o.p.s. is a selective six-year English grammar school, which is also part of the Czech school system. In 1995 it became the first school to offer the International Baccalaureate in the Czech Republic and every year around 70 of its students take the full IB Diploma exams. Most ECP graduates go on to study at universities mainly in the UK, but also in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in the world. Read about how to enroll here.

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