Remote learning is not a new concept in education. For many years, it went by the terms “distance” or “correspondence” learning. With the increase of online technology options at the turn of the millennium, the terms “virtual” and “online” learning became more prevalent.

Over the years, some students have thrived in these environments while others have not. My own 14-year-old son Brady is a great example. This past summer, he opted to take an online class at VLACS, an online school in New Hampshire.

He found that he struggled, but not because he couldn’t handle the academic work. His struggle came from what we discovered to be gaps in his command of self-direction and independence, a real-world skill that educators have wrestled with for years to find ways to help students master. Historically, students have been able to choose whether or not they want to learn in a remote/distance/virtual environment or not.

For many students, what kept them from choosing the remote environment was likely influenced in some way by their command of self-direction skills. Yet, the COVID-19 crisis has placed all students in our country in an undesirable situation: There is no choice. Remote learning is here to stay, at least for a little while. How will students cope, and what will become of their self-direction skills?

In this recent New Hampshire Learning Initiative article, Jonathan Vander Els explored this topic in more detail. He wrote, “There has always been a clear recognition of the importance of the critical competencies of communication, collaboration, creativity, and self-direction for success in the ‘real world’ by teachers, parents, community members, and local business leaders.”

He continued by stating that “providing opportunities for application of these skills in real-world situations that can transfer outside the walls of the school has been a question that educators have been grappling with.” Remote learning has brought about a new spin on this issue.

When New Hampshire moved to remote learning, Vander Els began documenting the entire experience in a series of podcast interviews that he held with New Hampshire administrators, teachers, and even students. That work continues. As he began to unpack these, he found something that surprised him: “students who typically struggled with self-direction in the regular classroom were flourishing in this new environment. It suggests that the environment plays a bigger role in the manifestation of these skills than we may have previously considered.”

In this Getting Smart article, Tom Vander Ark and Emily Liebtag explore ways that educators can increase self-direction in their classrooms. They write, “Employers are looking for candidates that on their own are able to identify a driving question, determine a team they need to help answer that question, able to effectively work with that team, execute and manage the project — through multiple iterations with lots of feedback — and then reflect and evaluate their work. Students should be developing self-direction by learning in the same way.” Vander Ark and Liebtag offer four strategies that educators can use to do this, and all of these can be done even in a remote learning environment:

Autonomy & Responsibility. Teachers can promote ownership and ultimately responsibility by making sure students understand the outcomes for the task they have been assigned and the learning they are engaged in.

Complexity. There is a fine line between tasks that are challenging and tasks that will build confidence in students. Teachers should look for ways to walk that fine line and provide students with opportunities to build their confidence as they work on more challenging tasks.

Duration. Vander Ark and Liebtag write, “How much time on task are students already consistently demonstrating? How much time have students spent learning content or skills to prepare them to work independently? Teachers need to think about having a mixture of short and supported experiences as well as some that are more long-term and independent. This will increase students' ability to sustain self-directed learning.”

Voice & Choice. Educators should look for ways to build choice and voice into learning activities whenever possible. When students are able to incorporate their interests and their passions into their work, they generally become much more engaged.

In his article, Vander Els talked about the increase in self-direction as one of the “silver linings” of this whole remote learning experience. Not only will we as educators learn more about how to support students in their self-direction skills, but students will learn more about themselves in this area as well. I’m excited to see what the future will bring.