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Early lessons from K-12 schools abroad on migrating to online distance learning

March 25, 2020

Following the massive wave of school closures sweeping the globe due to the spread of coronavirus, school leaders worldwide are now embarking on the largest online distance learning experiment in history.

As a growing number of district leaders devise online learning plans and guidelines for the first time, many are interested in learning from schools abroad that were forced to deal with the crisis weeks ago. What are the most effective distance learning instructional methods for maximizing learning and engagement? How can schools scale online distance learning quickly and equitably? Many superintendents and their teams are eager to know.

Unfortunately, the novelty of the COVID-19 crisis leaves school leaders with limited answers. Schools in China, Italy, and South Korea are weeks ahead of the U.S. in responding to coronavirus, but it remains too early to draw conclusions with certainty or determine the long-term impact of their efforts.

Nonetheless, schools in these countries have dabbled in different approaches with varying degrees of early success. Here are several online distance learning approaches from abroad that appear promising—at least for now.

Use synchronous learning formats if your school is new to remote learning

Schools that are in the process of migrating to online learning will need to determine whether teachers will use asynchronous or synchronous instructional formats during school building closures. Several schools in China and Italy found that synchronous learning—or conducting traditional lessons through video platforms such as Zoom or Google Classroom—was the simplest and quickest way to transition to large-scale remote instruction.

They found synchronous formats preferable for two reasons:

  1. Teachers can use existing lesson plans most of the time, assuming lessons translate to virtual settings.
  2. Synchronous formats maximize students’ social interaction with their peers and teachers during this isolating time.

Many schools abroad are using this approach across all grade levels, offering reading and math virtual instruction at the very least.

While asynchronous learning methods may initially appeal to many educators, these platforms may not be relevant to specific academic goals or appropriate for each grade. Several experts in the field, including Dr. Maria Anderson, the CEO of Coursetune, suggest that designing and selecting productive online curricula is a skill that ideally requires training. Schools moving to these methods quickly find that selecting meaningful online programs that enable K-12 students to make academic progress isn’t easy, and sometimes, such programs aren’t readily available. As a result, well-intended teachers may end up defaulting to programs that resemble busy work with limited educational value.

District leaders who choose to adopt asynchronous instructional methods should play an active role in supporting teachers in finding quality and relevant online programming. Specifically, they should ask teachers to outline academic goals for the coming weeks or months and check whether their existing curricula includes online learning resources related to those goals. If this is not readily available, district leaders could assemble district-wide teacher groups (based on grade-level or subject expertise) and task them with crowdsourcing and sharing resources through a centralized platform—such as Google docs. The California Department of Education’s list of distant learning resources provides an excellent starting point.

Shorten lessons from their original length

Engaging students in online lessons for long periods of time is hard, particularly for young students with shorter attention spans. To maximize student learning and attention, some schools in South Korea are experimenting with limiting their video-lessons to a maximum of 20 minutes total per session for primary students and a maximum of 40 minutes total per session for secondary students. These general guidelines also remind teachers to leave time for more interactive learning opportunities, such as engaging in discussion questions or group assignments with peers using video breakout sessions.


minutes is the maximum virtual lesson length for primary students
minutes is the maximum virtual lesson length for primary students


minutes is the maximum virtual lesson length for secondary students
minutes is the maximum virtual lesson length for secondary students

Encourage students to attend lessons live, but don’t mandate it if possible

Although full attendance at each live video lesson is ideal—and mandated in some cases—educators should anticipate that some students may not realistically be able to attend every virtual class. Schools around the world are quickly learning that many students must share devices with other family members or will need to deal with unforeseen issues at home throughout the day. As a result, some schools are moving away from mandating attendance and instead require teachers to record lessons so students who are unable to attend live can watch them later.

Allow secondary students to propose their own deadlines

Many students must share devices with other family members and need more time to complete assignments.

Another way schools abroad are accommodating students’ home realities is by assigning secondary students to create and submit a weekly timeline of when they will complete their work, requiring teacher approval. To implement this strategy, teachers email all students every Monday with a list of academic goals and assignments, and then students create a proposed plan that works best with their home-based lives. The teacher then reviews the plan and signs off if appropriate. Not only does this approach support students who need to divide their time or share their devices, but it could also provide the added bonus of strengthening students’ planning and time management skills.

U.S. district leaders are not alone in feeling overwhelmed and unsure about the transition to remote instruction. This is uncharted territory for school communities worldwide, even those in countries that are weeks ahead of the U.S. in dealing with COVID-19. As this crisis unfolds, EAB will continue to monitor and report on how schools abroad are approaching this massive challenge in our K-12 COVID resource center.

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