Like everything else post-COVID-19, schools are going to look different this fall. As teachers, we are grappling with that fact and trying to determine exactly how we will help our students come September. Will in-person classroom instruction resume? If so, will wide spaces between desks suffice, or will districts rely on staggered schedules to keep COVID at bay? Will cafeterias and playgrounds remain closed, and what could take their place?
While the future remains uncertain, we can count on one thing: distance learning will remain a part of the plan. Fortunately, this time around, educators have time and experience on their side. Following a tough transition period for most schools, Summer break provides the perfect opportunity to evaluate, invest in, and enhance school-wide PD and distance learning programs.
Educators can use this time to heighten their professional development by taking an online course that helps them transfer their skills from the classroom to a virtual classroom setting. As leaders in teacher training, Professional Learning Board responded to the stay-at-home orders by providing a free, five-hour course, giving teachers the tools they need to succeed in a virtual classroom.
In districts across the country, several common problems have slowed, even prevented, consistent learning this past semester. The priority needs to focus on these important areas:
Removing barriers to equity in remote learning. Every student and instructor needs access to a device and reliable connectivity at home.Some cities have developed partnerships with foundations and technology companies to provide free high-speed internet access to families, and a congressional measure to make it more widely and consistently available is on the table.
We have been in a race to respond to coronavirus and its impact on our colleges.
We were seeing the virus spread in other countries and watching their response, so we knew it was only a matter of time before the U.S. took social distancing measures and issue stay at home orders.
Given that reality, we focused our efforts on the following items:
Ordering laptops and other equipment to support a remote workforce
Reviewing/ordering necessary licenses to support a remote workforce
Reviewing bandwidth requirements and networking devices to support increase VPN demands
Developing and scheduling necessary technology training for all employees to prepare them for first day at home
Reviewing security practices to respond to new attack vectors
Meeting with academic leaders to develop a plan to transition all students to distance education using new tools
To assist with the transition, we trained the organization on Microsoft Teams. This is the primary tool we use to manage remote employees and departmental teams. We also use two additional video conferencing solutions to help with meetings and delivering synchronous distance education, they are GoToMeeting and Zoom. All students, faculty, and staff have a license for GTM.
Our e-leaning platform is Canvas. We have implemented new ways of using Canvas to support on-ground programs to assist with the transition to online. We are exploring other learning tools to help with the transition, like Respondus, depending on the department or programmatic requirements. We are still exploring new solutions; however, we have seen our colleges adjust curriculum rather than try and solve every problem with technology.
The community has been exceptionally patient throughout this process. They understand the tremendous challenge everyone is facing through this transition, including the strains on the IT department. Many of the challenges have been outside of our control, such as outages with Zoom, Teams, GTM, and home internet providers. These outages are a result of millions of new remote workers using these platforms for the first time, causing unprecedented traffic on the platforms. Most employees have been very understanding of this reality.
Our organization did not anticipate this pandemic, as our business continuity plans did not account for a remote workforce transition that would be nationwide. This provided unique challenges for everyone, including our technology team. However, we have been able to respond quickly to the crisis and keep the organization operating and able to serve our students and faculty.
Like many people, we’ve been asked to shift our face-to-face (FTF) classes to an online format. Generally, teaching an online class is something you approach thoughtfully. It’s not a matter of just uploading a few documents and calling it a day. Not all approaches that work well in a FTF format work well online. Plus, we’re asking students to adapt to a format they didn’t sign up for.
Prior to teaching a class online, there’s generally a checklist of technology provided in the syllabus. So, students know from the beginning what type of technology they’ll need and they can opt to either not take the class or get access to the technology. With switching midway through the semester, there may be issues of access to computers and reliable internet service for some students, all against a backdrop of a global pandemic and the fear and anxiety that inspires. So, there need to be alternatives and contingencies provided to students who may have more difficulty with making the switch.
There are a number of platforms that can support the switch to online instruction. Many textbook companies sell books that can be bundled with online platforms. While you generally must pay an additional fee to access the platforms in light of the pandemic some textbook companies are offering free access to their online platforms for those students who already purchased hard copies of books for their classes. This is a great option for faculty that are already using these books and need supplementation.
The website platforms are designed to integrate with the existing texts and can be used to switch learning online, similar to what happens in a flipped classroom (where content is learned online and then applied or integrated in the classroom). So, for example, McGraw-Hill has a system called Connect, which has interactive learning modules — kind of like flashcards — that walk students through material. They also have interactive activities that can be used to supplement course content.
For instance, in developmental psychology courses they can play a “game” where they make choices for animated characters and get to see the consequences of those choices. Similar options are available in other fields. For faculty that have used a traditional FTF format, this might provide a way to supplement course materials.
Discussion postings are frequently used, but unless you are very careful with how you structure them, they tend not to be very interactive or substantial. You get a lot of “I agree with so-and-so” type of comments which aren’t very intellectually stimulating. A different option I’ve used that works much better is online annotations. I use a platform called Perusall. It’s set up like social media, so students highlight a passage, and can then comment, ask and answer questions on, use emojis, link material, and “like” other students’ comments.
Generally, I find the discussions that result in that format are far more natural and complex than most discussion boards, I think in part because the format is familar to students. You can upload your own content for free, or Perusall has paired with textbook companies and students can purchase their e-books directly off there. Because of the pandemic, textbook companies have agreed that if you are already using their books (either electronic or hard copies) for a course, they will pair the books with Perusall for no added cost.
Another alternative to discussion postings is Flipgrid videos. With Flipgrid, you can ask a discussion question, but rather than answering in writing, students are asked to upload a video. It’s easy to do with a smart phone, which almost all students have. The videos can be set up in a grid, and you can provide options for length, and whether or not students can respond to each other in a sort of delayed conversation.
Zoom, of course, is also a great option. The free version allows you to hold a video meeting for up to 100 people for up to 40 minutes, and there are various pricing plans for other options. While actual conversations are hard if too many people are on a Zoom meeting, you can provide an online synchronous lecture, and even record if if someone can’t make the meeting time and wants to watch it later. You can also provide a chat bar on the side for students to make comments on as you speak. That can be more effective than just having everyone chime in with verbal questions.