The Transition to Remote Learning

The transition to remote learning as documented by journalist and long-time Learnlife observer, James Carberry. Following the rapid transition to online in only 24 hours, this post details the journey the Learnlife community has since been on to create an engaging and meaningful remote learning experience.

On March 10, we moved all learning online and into the homes of more than 60 learners and their families in Barcelona and beyond. This is a post about what’s happened since -- how our learners, their families and our learning team are adapting to this sudden and unexpected change in learning.  Adapting has been challenging, but also enlightening and rewarding.

In the weeks after we went online, we asked learners and their parents what they thought of our three learning programs for our Explorers (ages 11-13), Creators (14-16), and Changemakers (15-19). What was working, what wasn’t? What could be improved, and how? 

We found that they generally liked our programs, and it was a question of improving on what we had rather than doing a complete makeover.

Among their many comments and suggestions, they wanted:

  • An option for more family time. At home, learners are busy with family activities: routine chores, helping prepare meals, joining family discussions or having fun. Learning has to fit into family life, not distract from it. 
  • More activities in the home rather than on a screen. Parents and learners had plenty of ideas for such activities: cooking, gardening, science experiments, knitting, music, dance and mindfulness exercises. And more.
  • More flexible schedules. This was a matter of flexibility not only in what was scheduled but when. 
  • More wellness-based activities. Parents and learners wanted to plan more activities around their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. And they wanted to incorporate discussions about the pandemic into learning activities. What does the pandemic mean in the context of health? jobs? politics? Or learning, for that matter?
  • More defined, shorter-term tasks. In our learning hub, learners worked on projects that could continue for weeks or even months. Now, with learners working remotely, many prefer to do something short-term. One learner was working on a long-term project of designing and creating a brand of clothing, but now is focusing on one pair of pants.
  • More opportunities for in-depth learning. Some learners are just fine with delving deep into projects; indeed, they wanted more opportunities to do so.
  • More assistance. At home, learners like working independently, but they also may need more help from our learning guides.
  • More social activities. Learners are staying at home, but they want to stay connected with their friends.

Design principles

During spring break, our learning team drew on the feedback from parents and learners in brainstorming ideas about how to better meet their expectations. After several days of discussion and debate we agreed on a set of design principles that inform and guide our learning programs. 

The principles are:

  • Strong family engagement.
  • Flexibility in scheduling and choice of learning activities.
  • Highly engaging learning programs.
  • Strong social and community connections.
  • Wellness for everyone (parents, learners, learning guides).
  • Customization of learning for high-need learners.

To be sure, we were already following these principles to some extent. What we’ve done is to articulate them and to use them as the foundation for growing and strengthening our programs.

Key changes

Consistent with these principles, we made the following key changes in our learning programs.

  • Learners co-design their schedules with their parents and our learning guides.
  • Learners can choose from a variety of programs each day provided by our learning team and some parents. They simply decide which options have the most appeal. Also, in the afternoon, there are more options for learners. For example, they can opt for family time or wellness related activities such as meditation, movement or reading. There are fewer set times for activities and more choices in deciding when to learn.
  • Workshops are shorter than previously, with learners completing a project in two weeks. To assist learners, our professional experts are offering a variety of workshops around multimedia, music, digital fabrication, electronics, fashion and art.
  • More efficient use of screen time. Screen time should be used only to enhance learning, such as for discussions, feedback or emotional support. If a learner needs to receive content it should be recorded and provided asynchronously. Thus, a learner in a writing workshop who needed to study declarative sentences could, whenever it was convenient, look at a video provided by a Learning Guide or look for one on YouTube. Also, no more than 30% of a learner’s time should be for video calls. Zoom calls are limited to 40 minutes (the maximum with a free account). 
  • Learners check in once a week with a learning guide, less frequently than before. Learners reported that having to check in for each activity was too much and detracted from time they could be working. They asked for weekly check-ins 
  • A new help desk for learners. Learners can easily contact a learning guide for help every day (within prescribed hours). 
  • Wellness Wednesdays. Learners can choose from a variety of learning activities, some digital, some analog, and some with their family or other groups. Except for the weekly check-ins, all activities are optional. It’s up to families and learners to plan activities that work best for them -- whatever brings them joy and wellness. Some families, for example, enjoy games like Dungeon and Dragons, or participating in Minecraft clubs; or a parent leads a discussion about a documentary the family has watched.  

For learners who need additional help and guidance, such as those with ADHD, we have worked with them and their parents to co-create a different program, one that is attuned to their needs. It enables them to engage in learning without being unduly stressed.

Creativity

Some examples:

  • A learner, a drummer, is creating a video of playing the drums to Toxicity, by System of a Down. 
  • Working with her mom, an experienced sewer, a learner is designing and sewing patterns of fantastic creatures. 
  • Creating and producing a rap song is one learner’s project. His brother, also a learner, is remixing the same song. 
  • Writing a screenplay, a spinoff of the Star Wars series, is another learner’s project.
  • An animated, dark tale of the dead and undead is being developed by a learner.
  • Another learner is learning Python, a programming language.

Adapting

While being at home has its distractions, and they miss visiting their friends, learners are adapting. “Learners in the Explorers (11 to 13 years of age) group are doing well,” said Guille Villena, a learning guide. 

He attributes this, at least in part, to learners having more choices in what they want to do – and more responsibility for managing what they are doing. One learner is more organized and focused at home than he was at the learning center, Villena said.

Even though they are physically distant from each other, learners can still have fun online – and use their imaginations. For instance, Villena has asked learners to pick an object and talk about it. Among others, cats were chosen; so were key chains. They participated in finger-boarding online, having made make-shift ramps and pipes using cardboard and materials around the home. Others participated in group storytelling: a learner wrote a sentence of a story, another learner the next sentence, and so on.

Technology has helped with learning. Zoom, the video conferencing platform, enables learners to split up into small "breakout" groups to discuss and work on projects.

Storytelling

For a writing workshop for Creators (ages 14 to 16), Ana Aguilera, one of our learning guides, asked each of her learners to read the first page of one of their favourite books. (Among the choices were The Black Castle, by Les Daniels, and The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us, by Nicholas Carr. The idea was to help learners understand some of the different approaches to writing. Having looked at others’ writing, learners were asked to do a bit of their own writing: the beginning of their autobiographies. 

For another project, Aguilera asked learners to write and draw a storyboard for a comic strip. “This gives them a different kind of experience: drawing as well as writing,” Aguilera said. In the process, they learn how to break down a story into frames, a skill that can be used in different types of writing.

Aguilera also has a workshop with a group of Changemakers, learners aged 15 to 19. One of its goals is to help them prepare for job interviews, among other ways, by being ready to discuss changes they’ve accomplished. In a recent session, Aguilera asked learners to start with the question, what is change making? “They came up with three powerful words: change within, or how they themselves have changed, solutions, and innovation.” Learners then broke into small groups to discuss these words, and what they mean; and to converse about change makers they admire, from famous people to family friends. They were then asked to share with others in the workshop examples of how they themselves have instigated change, such as offering solutions to others. 

At the learning hub, the workshop ran for 90 minutes, twice a week. That schedule would have meant too much screen time in one stretch, and it was changed to four times a week, with 40-minute sessions. Learners have a big say in what they as a group will write about over the length of the workshop such as autobiography, science, history, fiction and more.

At its core, the workshop aims to give learners confidence in their ability to express themselves in writing. That confidence comes from writing – and continuing to write. “At the start, the very first thing I do is to ask them to start writing,” Aguilera said. 

A parent’s perspective

Teresa Nersesyan has two boys, Nico, 16, and Jacque, 17, in LearnLife. 

She finds that our current learning program works much better for them than when it initially went online. “It’s much more flexible, with more choices.” The learner guide help desk also has been a boon, she said, as has the Wellness Wednesday program.

Her boys have coordinated their schedules so they are in learning activities at the same time and can hang out together in their free time. During the day, they can help with things like preparing meals or taking the dog for a walk. “They’re fine with this as long as they know ahead of time what they will need to do,” she said.

Nersesyan especially appreciates being able to network with other LearnLife parents. “Many are single moms, and we all do what we can to help and support one another.”

Which goes to show that LearnLife is not only about learning. Above all, it’s about community.