A Conversation on Remote Learning Resources and Support
On April 1, the Network for Educator Effectiveness facilitated an online discussion on providing remote learning resources and support as educators rapidly shift to distance learning models amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Panelists for the session were:
- Christie Terry, Educational Specialist with eMINTS National Center
- Kathryn Fishman-Weaver, Director of Mizzou Academy
- Lynsie Hunt, Assistant Principal at Iowa Connections Academy
The following is a summary of the discussion, and a link to watch the full session is included at the bottom of this post.
Q: How can we support students who don’t have reliable Internet access?
Lynsie Hunt: We are really lucky right now because we are one of only three schools in operation in the state of Iowa. We were only given clearance to operate if we could ensure all students have access to the content or the curriculum. We did a call blast to contact all of our 600 kids to confirm they did have Internet access. But some of them were using hot spots or public libraries that are now closed. So now, we have an internal project management system that we are using to organize all of the teachers and to organize all of the packet materials to send to the kids. It’s delivered to them with self-addressed stamped envelopes so they can send it back.
We’ve had four kids over the past three days lose access, and we’re treating it almost like an emergency. When that happens, teachers have two hours to get their stuff uploaded, then we have someone print and mail it to the student. We want the turn-around time to be less than 24 hours from the time a kid says they don’t have access to when we are mailing things out of the office.
Christie Terry: I have some suggestions that are aimed at schools that are trying to support their students with what they have, for instance rural schools. The first thing I would do is to think about connectivity as an equity issue. Many of our students who are living in poverty or are students of color are more likely to be relying on cellphones rather than high-bandwidth internet access. And some of our rural students only have satellite, which is really slow upload rates, so think about your bandwidth load. Keep it as light as possible.
The second thing I would recommend is to make video conferencing optional so that people who don’t have the capacity don’t feel like they’re failing to meet your expectations. If you can and have a secure way to do it, send out a video message, but be careful about sending out something with your students in it.
There are a couple of resources that are out there right now to help students who don’t have Internet coverage. There’s a nonprofit called www.everyoneon.org that is a clearinghouse for resources that are helping schools connect students. On the site, put in your zip code, and then it will show you connectivity options in your area, including companies that have committed to the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. One of the companies is Mobile Beacon, and we have had some success with them with our folks who work in rural areas.
If you have students who qualify, then there is assistance from the federal government to help them pay for their internet so you’re talking about a very low cost for those families. But it’s still work to get the paperwork done, so I would advise if you have faculty that aren’t working on curriculum right now, maybe help them become a resource group for your parents to make connections and get some of that paperwork done to help them.
Kathryn Fishman-Weaver: In this moment, we have to think of this as an equity issue. As our schools are implementing new solutions rapidly and with lots of compassion, it’s a reminder to really think about the user experience. As we look at a lesson, think about what it looks like for Student X and Student Y. Is it equitable for all students? Think through how can we create asynchronous learning opportunities that don’t require connection the whole time. Maybe something that students can download and limit the connection that is required.
I’ve been so impressed and really moved by public and private organizations that have said they want to take this on and be of support right now. There are companies that are willing to cut costs and companies that are willing to provide hot spots for students in need. We think about wraparound services a lot in education, but we don’t usually think about connection as a wraparound service but in this moment it’s shifted a little bit. I would really encourage educators to use their resources and think about this as a community project.
Christie Terry: I would add, too, that a lot of schools have done inventories of what technologies students have at home. But remember, their parents are also working at home, so part of their technology resources might be in use by parents who are trying to keep their paycheck coming in.
Another thought I had is we have a local librarian here who laid piles of books on her yard, 6 feet apart, so students could take a walk and come get a pile of books to read at home. We have to think about how we can get resources to kids in a way that’s supplemental and isn’t scary for them or their families. So you might want to have a day where you lay out piles of activities or books, and people can come by, take a walk, and grab some materials. It doesn’t have to be high-tech to be supportive and help people feel connected.
Lynsie Hunt: My kids’ local district is using bus routes to get materials to students.
Q: What kinds of support do teachers need as they move to online teaching?
Kathryn Fishman-Weaver: I think an important message right now is that none of us planned for this. School isn’t continuing as normal. We’re all under tremendous pressure. Educators are committed to doing an excellent job always and putting students first always. They’re really looking for unprecedented guidance in this moment as to what that means.
As much as we can, we need to help teachers focus on what is essential. That starts with things like community, like relationships, which educators excel at. As we look at curriculum, we need to think about what is essential. We need to consider what we really want students to learn in the next two weeks, four weeks, eight weeks, and give educators permission that less is more.
Lynsie Hunt: We keep talking a lot about flexibility because teachers are so hard on themselves. Even though our teachers are used to working at home, they’re not used to working at home with their kids, so we just have to be flexible.
From the administrative side, we always start the week with a “loose and tight.” So I say, at the beginning of the week, these are the big things we need to focus on and get done. And then the “loose” things we might or might not get to; there’s just a lot less structure around those things. They’ve appreciated the communication about priorities and offering guidance. We’re a group of people who have lived on a bell schedule our entire life, and then all of a sudden, that’s completely gone.
I’ve told my teachers to use this opportunity to do all of the fun things they’ve wanted to do as a teacher. Let this be a time to let some of those big stresses go away. Like state testing, that’s gone. A lot of the big things that sometimes take the fun out of teaching aren’t hanging over our heads now. Let’s use this time to focus on things that bring us joy in our teaching.
Christie Terry: I would add that we can provide teachers some guidelines that give them some certainty. One of them might be encouraging them to limit the number of applications or log-ins that parents have to do each day. The more systems students have to log in to, the more stressed parents are and the more they pass that stress on to the teachers.
Also keep in mind I see some educators using platforms like Facebook. Keep in mind Facebook isn’t really a platform that students should be logging into; it’s more for parent communication.
I would also suggest for them that they keep to some sort of schedule, especially in terms of parent communication. Give parents a time and a place when they can log in and expect to hear from you. It’s supportive for teachers, too, because it allows clarity and removes stress.
When talking to teachers, don’t talk about accountability or evaluation. Talk about support, mental health, keeping people connected – that’s really the role we’re fulfilling right now. The goal is not really to have kids learn more (which would be great). Right now, we’re trying to hold the line and keep up their mental health, and that’s got to be the biggest focus for us.
Thinking about direct support for teachers, there’s just a flood of information out there right now for teachers. It’s overwhelming. If you do want them to use some of those resources, maybe use some of your teachers who might not be focused on core curriculum right now. Have them go through those resources and find the gems. Many of those free resources might not comply with CIPA, COPPA, and FERPA, so have your tech folks review them and then provide recommendations to teachers. That takes the stress away from teachers having to figure out the best resources for themselves.
One of the things that can relieve stress is to let them know this is an experimental period and to collect feedback from them about what’s working and what’s not.
Q: What are the best ways to communicate with faculty, students, and families in distance learning, being careful not to overwhelm them?
Lynsie Hunt: I think you probably want to streamline how you are communicating with people. Also consistency in terms of the technology that teachers are using, so you don’t have one teacher using Facebook, one using just email, one using Zoom. That gets really overwhelming for students and parents, really fast. And then we all feel the stress of that.
One other thing, we also try to give a point person for every kid or one point person for each family if there are multiple students.
It also applies in terms of teachers. We use Google Hangouts as our mode of communication with all of our teachers, so they know that’s what they look at. Obviously, they check email too, but they know that’s the place they need to check. It makes communication as efficient as possible and also sets the standard.
Christie Terry: I would just reiterate the schedule of communication as well. Parents are the ones facilitating this, so you have to know parents will have certain times of the day where they can check in and facilitate their students’ learning more effectively.
Kathryn Fishman-Weaver: As I’m thinking about formal communications, email in particular, we’re being inundated with communications at a level we have not yet experienced. In emails I’m sending, I’m trying to use formulas and writing process best practice. I start with a check-in that is at the human/personal/social/emotional level. When it comes to the message, I use bullet points to streamline the communication. And then I close with a connect so that folks know when they can hear from me next, or what’s coming next. I’m also reading and re-reading and getting a second set of eyes on things as much as possible so I’m not sending a really long email and then another long email with a correction.
In the informal communication, we use a faculty text group for community-building. I’ll ask questions like “What are you thankful for?” or “Share a funny picture of your pets.” We need to remember that we’re in this together.
Christie Terry: I would encourage teachers, when they’re having success, to write it down and share it. This is a time to get people sharing ideas, patting each other on the back. If you can do it, encourage your teachers to have a Zoom happy hour or coffee chat just to help them stay connected too.
Q: How do you (and should we) evaluate the effectiveness of remote learning? What is too much or too little?
First we wanted to turn things over to Tom Hairston, NEE’s director of research and innovation, to share NEE’s guidance around this question.
Tom Hairston: One of the first decisions we made here at the Network for Educator Effectiveness as this nationwide snowball rolled down the hill and schools closed and everything was thrown into flux, we recommended that evaluation cease at that point. Any formal evaluation, any classroom observation, any new data should be stopped. Focus on the support you as an instructional leader could give to teachers around instruction, communication, and how can we approach those in the most cohesive and consistent manner possible. Continue to have check-ins with teachers, absolutely, but come at it more from the coaching aspect. Build on their strengths.
The other major discussion we’re having is: What happens long-term? If this continues, worst-case scenario, for the next 18 months, what then does the next school year look like? And how do we evaluate teaching at that time? At some point, this new normal becomes normal. So we’re having those discussions about how we can provide evaluation resources and services for schools to continuously improve and increase effectiveness of these distance learning styles and structures that we’ve been talking about today.
Christie Terry: Remote learning is really about a lot of work on the front end. You’re not having as many spontaneous interactions with students. So remote learning, in my opinion, is an evaluation of the plan more so than it is facilitation. So, as we’re looking at it right now, teachers haven’t had that planning at all. It doesn’t make sense to evaluate them on this experience. That wouldn’t be an evaluation of their teaching skills or their planning skills, it’s an evaluation of their emergency management skills. I would not engage in evaluation right now.
As you move forward in thinking about how to evaluate remote learning in the future, planning has to be part of it. There’s differences between remote learning and face-to-face learning that need to be considered.
Second part: What is too much or too little? What I would say is families are really overwhelmed right now. It has to do with not only students’ capacity but parents’ capacity to get organized and help do the work. Partially it depends on the age of students. But you really have to give a lot of slack. Personally, I would say two to three hours a day.
In our own school district where my kids go to school, they’re actually taking a pause because parents are overwhelmed. They couldn’t do it all. Don’t be afraid to take a pause and to adjust and move up and down the scale of too much or too little based on your experiences.
The other thing is to try to have a place where parents can give feedback about how it’s working without it being a burden or complaint box for teachers. Have someone from your district or building leadership level to check in with parents to collect that information.
Kathryn Fishman-Weaver: As we’re thinking about evaluation of remote learning, I absolutely agree with Christie that this is not online remote learning as usual. We’re not even at a moment with most school districts that we can implement best practices in online or remote learning.
We’re in a crisis mode. We have to take what we can and center on what matters most. In the conversations I’ve had with districts, the priorities have been communication, equity, connection, food insecurity. There are some very basic human elements.
I think the general approach is let’s be uber gracious right now with educators. Focus on what is essential. What do students really need to know? Boil it down to an essential question, a few learning targets, and do our best to hit those targets. If we can, that’s success.
If this continues into next year, we would be starting in a different place. My advice would be we lean more on experts to implement best practices in online education starting in August and September. A critical question is: What are we learning? Those lessons that we’re learning, we can take and implement those in new ways, I think, to change our schools in beneficial ways. These weren’t lessons we were planning on learning in March and April of 2020, but we are, so implementing those lessons is part of evaluation right now.
Lynsie Hunt: Something I keep telling my teachers is the changes that come out of this are going to make us stronger and we’re going to be better because of it. We were forced into a situation where we were able to see and evaluate holes, and now we get to fix those things and we’re going to be better because of it.
The only evaluation, in my opinion, would be evaluating the effectiveness of remote learning, not evaluation of the teacher administering remote learning.
The last piece, talking about what’s too much or too little, someone recommended an hour per subject area per week. As a parent, I have witnessed my kids being really engaged in some things I’ve never seen them engaged in. I have six kids at home, and they are all over the place in terms of their ability and their want for learning. It really is amazing what our kids can do when we remove some of those things that happen in a traditional brick-and-mortar environment. If you think it’s too much, it probably is too much, that’s my suggestion.
Christie Terry: The only thing I would consider as an evaluation metric for teachers, and it would be a light metric, maybe just a reminder, is making sure they connect with families each week.
Lynsie Hunt: To tag on to that, we keep a Google Sheet to keep track of the communications for each kid, the last time we checked in. We know if we need to ramp up efforts to get in touch and make sure everything is okay.
Kathryn Fishman-Weaver: As we think about time and we think about learning, I’m reminded that learning happens in lots of different environments and lots of different ways. We need to find ways to affirm for our families and teachers that learning can happen in lots of ways outside of the packets, outside of the content.
Q: What one tool would you suggest teachers use that gives them a wide variety of choice when using? So many tools seem one-dimensional.
Christie Terry: I would say stick with the tools that you and your families already know. I would narrow the tools and focus on one or two that people already know how to use, rather than trying to implement new technology at this point.
Lynsie Hunt: All of our teachers have a youcanbook.me link to book a time with that teacher. That’s a tool that has helped us a lot this year, and parents have given a lot of positive feedback. We have a Google spreadsheet with each teacher’s link so students and parents can easily find it.
Christie Terry: The eMINTS National Center here at the University of Missouri is committed to providing one-on-one support for any teacher who wants it, whether in Missouri or outside of Missouri. You can send eMINTS an email, and we would be happy to get you scheduled with support during this time.
Kathryn Fishman-Weaver: I can add that Mizzou Academy is also committed to helping with access. We have over 200 courses at the middle and high school levels. We do a lot of partnerships with districts to supplement face-to-face learning. You can send an email to Mizzou Academy if you’d like to have a conversation.