Converting a collaborative activity to distance learning project

Most of us don't want to start over.  As we switch to distance learning, we are trying to balance our students' mental well-being with their academic needs.  To that end I am thinking about what I had already planned to do for the last two months of the year versus what is realistic.  Since, I don't know how long we will be doing distance learning, I am planning for finishing the school year remotely.  I HOPE to see my students in our classroom to finish the year, but who knows?  
Some changes I have made already:

  • Instead of having a final exam, I am giving students a project.
  • We will have one more exam (open note, open book)
  • All quizzes are now open note, open book
  • Independent student notebooks occur at home are followed by in-person discussions
  • Altering some of the content pieces to make distance learning more feasible.  For example instead of focusing on specific new content which is difficult for some of my new students to access, I am focusing more on skills such as writing, analysis, and synthesis.
  • Changing collaborative activities to independent projects
It's this last one that I will discuss specifically in this post: changing a collaborative activity/project to an independent project.

Most activities can be done independently.  We like students to work in groups.  Collaborative learning has a multitude of benefits: develops higher thinking skills, builds self-esteem in students, and encourages diversity in understanding to name just a few.  If you have access to an online platform that supports breakout rooms or your students have feasible ways to work together remotely, you may be able to continue collaborative activities. But if those collaborative activities must become independent projects, here's some tips for adaption:

  1. Clearly stated directions: Print out, email, etc. the instructions: The directions you might have provided orally need to be written out explicitly.  This is good practice
    always, but especially important during distance learning.  Provide in an email or in the packet of materials students receive.  Star important points/directions.  Use boxes, different colors, icons, arrows, or other tools to help students navigate.  If you have taught the activity before, it can be helpful to assemble a frequently asked question section for students.
  2. Provide all materials/ information/ handouts: Students may just need a book, but if they need paper, colored pencils, background information, videos or slides, it is on you to make sure they have access to it.  I am keeping things simple.  For example, my US history students are going to write raps for the Nixon/Kennedy debate.  Our entire cold war unit is going to be remote, so I have to think carefully about what they know and need to know and what information and tools they have access to.
    If we were in the classroom, I would ask that they do a little research.  Instead, I am giving them all the background information they need.  Each student will choose to take Kennedy's or Nixon's perspective and then write a rap arguing his viewpoint.  
  3. Be explicit/break it down:  in class it's easier to answer questions on the fly or make suggestions as students work.  I can't see what my students are doing.  Therefore, this project is completed in steps that build on each other, so that by the time students get to writing the rap, they are ready.  From analysis questions that help students focus in on what they read to generating important points regarding their candidate's viewpoint, students build the basis for the end goal - a Hamilton style rap on a major issue such as civil rights.
  4. Adapt to your setting: You have to be flexible. As a teacher you already know this instinctually but working remotely feels like a completely foreign environment.  The debate rap we conduct in class which is a highlight of our year isn't going to be able to happen live.  I would love to put it in a ZOOM room, but all of my students don't have easy access, so we are adapting.  Students are going to send me written, audio or video files of their raps, and I will post on a private youtube video channel.  For those that are written, I am typing them into a powerpoint that I will run as a slideshow.  It's a little extra work on my part, but most of my students have some access to technology, and they are very creative.  It's not the same as in class, but it will work.  

Almost any activity can be adapted to distance learning from illustrated timelines to projects to analysis activities, and most do not even require a computer or internet.  It is really a matter of giving students the information and tools they need so that they can work independently.


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