Homeschooling or digital distance learning?

Right at the beginning of the corona virus-induced shutdown of schools, ‘homeschooling’ has established itself as a term for home learning in Germany in no time at all. However, In the cultural context of open education systems such as the one in USA, homeschooling is a concept in which parents, the family or other caretakers at home take on the role of a teacher – outside the school system. But parents are not substitute teachers, and teachers must continue to be the central, professionally trained reference persons for a learning group and each individual student. Apart from these questions of academic disciplinary competences, it is precisely in this situation that pupils from so-called educationally underprivileged families must be prevented from being further disadvantaged.

Parameters of classroom teaching

The shutdown of all schools and educational institutions calls into question everything we have practiced as teaching and everything we believe to know about institutional learning. This concerns

  • the timing and spatial co-presence as well as
  • social cooperation and interaction or
  • personal ties to fellow students and to teachers.

Most familiar forms of institutional learning are oriented towards these conditions. The English term ‘classroom’ designates exactly this. The impact on foreign language teaching and learning is comparatively substantial: practicing and engaging in oral face-to-face communication is suspended, as is the communicative interaction of classroom discourse – an important component of foreign language learning. In particular, dialogic teacher-student interaction is  difficult to accomplish in distance communication as is the case in face-to-face classroom discourse. However, depending on the respective digital teaching technology used, it is not impossible.

Competences, experience and experiments

In view of the situation outlined above, concepts for distance learning are now required instantly. Teachers are only more or less experienced in distance learning, and most of them are not really trained. I am myself, rather, one of the non-experts who should hesitate to give advice. On the other hand, it is now important to exchange experiences, to explore options and not to be afraid to try things out. I would like to contribute to thisendeavour in the near future with this blog, not only by myself, but also with the help of contributions from colleagues and their experiences with digital distance learning. Philipp Reul makes a start with a first report on distance learning with a 6th grade.

Watch the video on digitizing the foreign language classroom (in German)

Didactic competences for distance learning

Especially in the current situation, it is not the worst idea to think about analogies between presence and distance learning. This can mean, for example, as many colleagues do, continuing to follow the tried and tested learning paths, e.g. with weekly schedule work or in coursebook work as established in conventional teaching. This produces a reliability and familiarity that is so important for the learners, their parents and for the teachers right now. Of course, this raises central questions immediately, which I would like to address in this blog bit by bit: How can or should digital teacher-student communication be conducted? How can all students be given the support they need, even at a distance? How can teachers keep track of how learners organise their working processes and whether they are working successfully? How can all learners receive feedback on the progress and results of their work as individually as possible? These are only a few of the pedagogical and didactical questions that are also valid for face-to-face teaching, but which now need to be reconsidered.

Technologies for distance learning 

In digital distance learning, the answers depend decisively on the technical environments available for this purpose. The greatest analogies to classroom learning can be achieved with video conferencing software, because there the whole classroom discourse is digitalized and relies on the visual and acoustic presence of the students and the teacher in the same (digital) ‘room’. Learning platforms are of course also much suited, because they offer many pedagogical options, from the provision of materials and worksheets to forums or wiki and e-mail functions. The simplest, albeit also valuable way is e-mail communication, which can be used to transmit tasks and the students’ working results. 

The learners’ starting conditions

Of course, it is always necessary to check for all members of a learning group (even for the purpose of e-mailing) what the technical requirements are for learning at home. Unfortunately, it is also a reality that families do not have a computer or that students have not learned how to use a keyboard. Therefore, it is one of the principles to always assess the technical working conditions first and, if necessary, to practise how to handle it properly. This is more than just a necessity: If not in such phases, when else do young people experience the need to write longer and coherent texts using a keyboard and word-processing software?

Digital communication as an opportunity

Possibly, this leads to the most important reflection in the field of foreign language learning: How can the current phase be used to practice established digital forms, formats and genres of communicative interaction, to learn them systematically and to use them competently in foreign language interaction? In the project of task development in the research network “Leistungs macht Schule” (LemaS; excellence in school education) we (and of course the students!) were fortunate enough to see many such valuable digital target products and communication formats in classroom practice, from online application videos and audio guides to blog posts and digital magazines. If this kind of competence acquisition is successful, the current phase can also contribute to the advancement of digital education and the acquisition of digital literacies in foreign language teaching


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  • We shouldn’t forget that homeschooling is and has been illegal in Germany for some time, and it is one of the only countries in the world to have such strict regulations. Recently the term “homeschooling” has been grossly misused in Germany to describe the situation of parents and guardians increasingly taking over the role of educator in their child’s education during the corona virus pandemic. In the United States the concept of homeschooling has a long, detailed history and culture and it would never be used in the way it has become widespread in Germany. If a principal told me to conduct homeschooling, as a teacher my initial reaction would be one of relief – Now I don’t have to perform my teaching duties! Of course, this isn’t case (nor should it be in my opinion). You’re correct in using the term distance learning and we as teachers should bring our pedagogical expertise, methods and knowledge into the home via online, digital learning. Parents will be taking a more active role than usual, but teachers must remain the guiding educators during these times. More than anything students will be faced with not only technological constraints (which could be, with the appropriate budget, easily remedied), but especially with grave differences in learning environments at home; the field-leveling school classroom which normally constitutes the learning environments of students is now replaced by widely differing home settings (such as size, noise, number of family members, familial demands, stress management, etc.). But this is the situation we are confronted with, and as you mentioned there are numerous methods to try out many of which were already beginning to be implemented and seem to be at the very least part of the future of education with or without the school closures stemming from the pandemic.

  • Many thanks for this substantial comment, introducing the US-cultural and historical perspective on homeschooling. As you convincingly show, we need this cultural awareness of educational traditions, settings and practices in order not to be mistaken about what we are currently faced with. In light of the learning conditions under Corona, we need the teachers’ pedagogical expertise more than ever. And as you say, yes, we might well make use of the present challenges and develop the digital dimension of teaching and learning further – and of communication, since we are language teachers.

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