distance learning

Some Criticisms of Distance Learning Packets

I’ve been openly critical of the packets that school districts around the country have assigned en masse as a part of their COVID-19 response plans. So I’d like to provide context for these criticisms. I’d also like to point out that these criticisms are meant to push our schools to continue to do more to serve our students in this public health emergency.

To begin, I need to say that I understand many of the reasons for resorting to packets. To ensure an equitable response, all students need to have access to some form of education, and the easiest way to do that is to ask all teachers to print off a few units worth of chapter questions.

There’s also the time issue. Most educators had very little time to prepare this work. A typical unit taught under normal school conditions may take a team of teachers days or even weeks to prepare. But the school closures took most of us by surprise, and teachers often had only a couple days or perhaps even a handful of hours to make plans for an indefinite amount of distance learning.

And then the technology issue. Even if equity issues could be addressed, the average teacher is not adequately prepared to transition to online learning so quickly.

So I understand and empathize with school leaders and teachers. At the same time, I know we can do more. And our students, our parents, and even our country are really counting on more from us.

So what’s so bad about assigning packets?

To begin, it completely oversimplifies the learning process. Simply put: it’s mainly busy work. To complete many of these packets, students look for answers in their reading and fill in the blanks. Of course there are many variations to this, and also some exceptions, but this is the basic format. And we’ve all seen these before. The only reason any of us may have liked them in our own schooling is because they are often easy–once you get the hang of them.

The point is that most of this isn’t learning and rarely even review, so we shouldn’t fool ourselves or our students and say that it is. If we truly want busy work (and I understand that some parents do), then we can come up with something more engaging than this.

On the other hand, the assigning of a challenging text–a classic novel, for example–and providing reading questions is not only ineffective, but also irresponsible. Any text that requires guided instruction and depends on the teacher for added interest and engagement has major problems in distance learning. Students will have major issues comprehending such texts even with their best attempts at reading, but many understandably won’t give their best attempt because they lack the motivation to read challenging texts on their own. The same thing goes with assigning reading of new chapters of a textbook without support, as textbooks are written above the reading level of many of our students (in many cases, the majority).

But either way, assigning packets alone–which many schools are doing–does not allow one of the most important parts of learning: feedback. How do you provide feedback on a packet a student must keep at home? (Of course some may even question whether a packet even requires feedback, considering the low level of cognition often require.)

Again, these are some criticisms meant to help schools to rethink their initial responses now that we’ve had a little time to assess our current situation and now that we have a better idea of future timelines.

So let’s keep pushing forward to find new ways to promote effective distance learning. This is new to all of us, and it requires new solutions.

Upcoming post: Some potential solutions to distance learning problems.

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